Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.
Everything about Caroline, or Change should work. The characters are interesting, full of the kind of emotion that practically demands show-stopping numbers. And the show-stopping numbers are in evidence, performed by a fantastic cast blessed with top notch pipes. There’s even at least three different “main” characters who provide the audience with openings for identification to offer easy entrée into the story, depending on who resonates most closely with you. So why is it that the technically excellent production ofCaroline or Change, presented by the SpeakEasy Stage Company in association with North Shore Music Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Calderwood Pavillion failed to move me?
The play concerns the intersection of two families at the time of President Kennedy’s assassination. Caroline Thibodeaux (Jacqui Parker) struggles to balance raising her own children – especially budding activist Emmie (Shavanna Calder) – with her job as a maid to the Gellmans. Stuart Gellman (Michael Mendiola) lost his wife and recently married her best friend, New Yorker Rose Stopnick (Sarah Corey). He has retreated into his own world, but she tries to reach out to his son Noah (Jacob Brandt), who really only wants to connect to Caroline.
There’s no shortage of talent on stage at the Roberts Studio Theatre. Parker brings almost supernatural power to the difficult score. She is matched note for note by A’lisa D. Miles, who gives voice to many of Caroline’s fantasies as both The Washing Machine and The Moon. Brandt has cornered the market on adolescent Jewish boys in musical theatre, shining even brighter here than he did in last season’s outstanding production of Falsettos. And Calder makes the adolescent dilemma of simultaneously rejecting and loving her mother feel immediate and real.
Music director José Delgado deserves special credit for not only putting together a terrific band that ably shifts among the various styles composer Jeanine Tesori draws on in her score, but also for enabling his singers to do the show largely without microphones.
But despite these and other exceptional performances, I found myself waiting for the tug at my emotions that never came. For, despite a subject matter practically guaranteed to provoke – race relations in the South the wake of the Kennedy assassination, with a healthy dose of orphans coming to terms with their remaining parents on the side – the production speaks to the head, not the heart.
A major reason lies with librettist/lyricist Tony Kushner, whose script comes across as too pleased with its own cleverness. The audience is practically beaten over the head with the different ways the word “change” can be used. We get it. This production’s Rose, Sarah Corey, the New York-transplant stepmother to Noah, is another problem. While the character could be a sympathetic way into the story, particularly for northern Jews like me, Corey’s portrayal lacks warmth. It’s too easy for the audience to reject this Rose just as Noah does, and she makes no case for why she ever came south and married into this family to begin with.
Director Paul Daigneault (also SpeakEasy’s producing artistic director), has embedded some subtle tricks in his staging. His stage itself, designed by Eric Levenson, is practically segregated, with the Jewish characters’ world represented on a raised platform stage left and the black characters’ world lower to the ground stage right. Even speech becomes a segregating factor – the black characters all pronounce Caroline’s name one way, the Jewish characters (mis)pronounce it a different way. Only Sean McGuirk, putting in a small but valuable appearance as Rose’s leftist father, sees Caroline clearly enough to pronounce her name the way her own family does.
But despite all these best efforts, the play fails to move. By the time Caroline’s eleven o’clock number comes, the audience knows we’re supposed to be feeling anguish for her struggle, but I only felt wonder at Parker’s soulful belt.
Caroline, or Change in the Nancy and Edward Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston, now extended through June 10. Ticket prices are $44 for adults on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30; Saturdays at 4PM and Sundays at 7PM. Tickets are $48 for adults on Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM and Sundays at 3PM. Students and senior citizens save $5 off regular adult prices at all times. For tickets or information, call the Box Office at 617-933-8600 or visit the Calderwood Pavilion box office, 527 Tremont Street, or visit one of these websites:www.speakeasystage.com or www.bostontheatrescene.com.
Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo