Julia Nixon knows how to play weary. Her first sound as tired, weary Caroline before a song is sung or a word is spoken, is a melodic moan that comes from the depths of her soul grabs you and doesn’t let go. Listen closely and you can hear elements of a field holler, hurt, sorrow, hope, and a prayer– Julia says a lot in that moan Before she even opens her mouth, so you can imagine the treat in store when she does. Writer Tony Kushner also has a lot to say in this somewhat autobiographical piece, and this master of allegory and metaphor uses all aspects of characters, objects, and dimensions to tell the story. Caroline, or Change at Studio Theatre is a musical wonder with hints of societal consciousness, haunting atonal riffs, joyful melodies, and cultural messages all wrapped in the deceptively simple packaging of a young Jewish boy’s southern experience with a sullen black maid in the household.
Caroline is nobody’s perfect hero-she scowls, she snaps, her boss even wonders if she knows how to smile, she permits a youngster to light and puff her one daily cigarette-like all of us she’s got her faults. But she also takes delight in her music on the radio, she’s a diligent “loyal” worker, and is rock-steady when the world around her jolts with social unrest, turmoil, uncertainty and death. Caroline is the epitome of life going on-no matter what is happening around us, the clothes have to be washed, bare pantries must be searched for the next meal, and the children must be tended to. If you’re lucky, somehow they’ll learn their life lessons and take on grown-up ways. Until then, in Zen-like ritual, there’s the clothes, the meals, the chores, the family.
Kushner has a field day with the multidimensional allegorical layers in the piece, and the director/choreographer Greg Ganakas, and the set designer, Debra Booth, capture every nuance. From the beginning, we get a sense that things are not what they seem on the surface-the underground teems with life, often the infrastructure to make things happen and get done. The industrial size washing machine and dryer dominate the opening scene and stage for a reason-more than mere props, they symbolize the many years of Caroline’s hard work, and their actor counterparts Allison Blackwell and Elmore James deliver their sounds and manner in fine voice and appeal. Same with the exquisite moon that rises and lowers as needed, personified with graceful dignity and tremendous vocals again, by Blackwell, a standout. The three “soul singers” bring upbeat vitality to the scenes, and the children, especially Max Talisman as Noah, are all natural, fresh talents. The Gellman’s Chanukah Party fits beautifully into the mosaic and is riotously funny; the old world music and dancing lift the gaiety to an all-time high just in time for reality to nibble at the edges.
Reality doesn’t bite as much as it seeps and oozes through everything. Kushner’s genius is his theatrical ability to bring you into the moment and give you enough time to “get it.” While the first Act immerses us into Caroline’s world, in the second Act we see the consequences of what seemed at first to be small insignificant actions. In this case, the metaphor is change, loose change in the pocket, and the resulting change in the family dynamics when the stakes get higher.
Kushner alludes to higher societal stakes and change occurring in the world around her with references to “Bull” Conner, toppling confederate symbols, and the shattering impact of Kennedy’s assassination. But Caroline’s struggles are more interior as she prays for peace and deliverance from feeling so evil and mean-spirited, invoking-“…some folks march for civil rights and I don’t! I ain’t got the heart! I can’t hardly read… but ya’ll can’t do what I can do! Ya’ll strong but ya’ll not strong like me!” She’ll leave the social battles for her children to fight, and judging from the power struggles with her spirited daughter (excellent work by Trisha Jeffrey), she has raised some warriors. Caroline has enough on her plate just getting through the day, and Julia Nixon portrays a quiet and restrained struggle like nobody’s business. Whether she’s softly singing and rocking as in a pew, unconsciously smoothing out her dress and rubbing the kinks out of her thighs Grandma-style, or standing wide-legged and ripping out sounds so fierce you don’t know what hit you, she does it all with that legendary voice, timbre and her own style.
Caroline, or Change is stylistically different and, for some, might be an acquired taste-the score while rich and complex is not always accessible, even whiny in spots. Still, as stated in the program, Caroline, or Change represents “a new experiment in form for Kushner; his first foray into musical theater; it is less a traditional musical and more a sung-through modern opera…” Yet again, Studio has struck out on faith that if they build it-from new theater space to new innovative musical theater styles-they will come. Judging from the loud and appreciative packed houses so far, they are definitely coming.