Firebrand Theatre’s second season opens with a poignantly fitting musical choice: composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tony Kushner’s CAROLINE, OR CHANGE. In the musical from this renowned writing team, protagonist Caroline Thibodeaux, a black woman working as a maid for a white Jewish family in 1963 Lake Charles, Louisiana goes on a powerful journey of self-discovery. Firebrand, in partnership with TimeLine Theatre Company, has made a production choice that fits the company’s feminist mission like a glove.
Director Lili-Anne Brown’s intimate staging at The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage also ensures that audiences will feel deeply for Caroline’s story. The action plays out on Lauren Nichols’s bi-level set, which conveys all the spaces the show needs. Nichols provides a clear visual of the divide between the Gellman family’s house and the basement below in which Caroline does most of her work. This design also means that Caroline spends much of her time downstage, literally putting her front and center. It’s a clever move given the show’s title and focus and allows the audience to connect with Caroline’s interior thoughts.
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE opens with Caroline in conversation with the inanimate objects around her: the Washer (Tyler Symone), Dryer (Michael Lovette), and the Radio (Emma Sipora Tyler, De’Jah Jervai, and Roberta Burke in a Supremes-like send-up). Besides being a unique dramaturgical device, these anthropomorphized characters convey a sense of Caroline’s loneliness in the Gellman household. Costume designer Kotryna Hilko’s period-appropriate creations also create an intriguing delineation between the human characters and these personified objects.
The entirety of CAROLINE, OR CHANGE is sung-through and unfolds as a similar series of vignettes in the life of Caroline and those around her. The musical explores a number of personal relationships and social dynamics in the racially divided American South of the 1960s. The genius of Kushner’s dialogue and lyrics, however, is that they never feel like they’re hitting you over the head. Rather, Kushner presents moments that ring true and allow these relationships to unfold organically onstage. Notably, the change in the title is also a major plot point. It has a double meaning, referring both to the changing times and also to the pocket change that Noah frequently leaves in the pants Caroline must launder for him. When Noah’s stepmother Rose Gellman suggests that Caroline should keep the change as punishment for Noah, it sets Caroline on the course for moral contemplation.
Of course, one of the most central relationships is that between Caroline (Rashada Dawan) and eight-year-old Noah Gellman (Alejandro Medina). We learn at the top of the show that Noah’s mother has recently died of cancer, and he is clearly seeking friendship and comfort in the Gellman house. He strikes up a friendship of sorts with Caroline, when he comes to the basement to help her light her daily cigarette. Dawan and Medina have a natural rapport onstage, and Medina possesses a vocal ability that seems well beyond his years (he’s currently in sixth grade).
The relationships in CAROLINE, OR CHANGE would not resonate as much without Brown’s capable cast bringing them to life. Dawan has a magnificent turn as Caroline. She beautifully embodies all the layers within Caroline’s mind as she struggles with the titular change in the show. We see her be firm and commanding with Rose and often hard on herself, but we also see a Caroline that is vulnerable and questioning. Dawan’s layered performance reaches its pinnacle with her interpretation of the 11 o’clock number “Lot’s Wife.” This is clearly exhausting to perform, and Dawan does so with vocal expertise and emotional openness. Without a doubt, this is an anchoring performance.
Blair Robertson hits all the right beats as the neurotic Rose; she is frantic and frazzled, appearing to curl in on herself at moments. Alongside Medina, the other young performers are standouts as well. College junior Bre Jacobs commands the stage as Caroline’s eldest daughter Emmie, and she performs some of the show’s loveliest numbers with Princess Isis Z. Lang and Lyric K. Sims as her siblings Jackie and Joe, respectively. Jervai, Burke, and Tyler harmonized wonderfully as the Radio. Symone and Lovette have a playful, vibrant energy as Washer and Dryer (they also double as Moon and Bus). Nicole Michelle Haskins is also delightful as Caroline’s close friend, Dotty.
As this is a musical, it’s also important to note that Andra Velis Simon’s music direction makes the most of Tesori’s unique score. Just as Kushner subtly allows all the musical’s layers to unfold, so too does Tesori’s music draw on a rich variety of sources to build character and atmosphere. Tesori’s compositions have influences from Motown to R&B to classic show-tunes to traditional Jewish Klezmer music, and more. Though Firebrand’s band has only five members, that is enough to unravel all the musical layers.
As Firebrand so compellingly shows, CAROLINE, OR CHANGE is about a woman who learns to listen better to those around her and contemplates change in a pivotal moment of history. But above all, Caroline learns to listen to herself. This through-line is the show’s beating heart and is what makes CAROLINE, OR CHANGE such a uniquely wonderful experience.
Firebrand Theatre’s CAROLINE, OR CHANGE runs through November 11 at The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage, 1331 North Milwaukee. Tickets are $45 ($20 student/industry rush tickets are available). Visit Firebrandtheatre.org.
Photo by Marisa KM
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com.