Review by Barbara & Scott Siegel . . .

Caroline, or Change is right on the money — and that is the truth in more ways than one. This revival of the critically acclaimed 2003 musical comes back to The Great White Way burnished from the fire of time. What it says about race, economics, and humanity comes with unflinching honesty; it said those same things eighteen years ago, and said them brilliantly. The difference is that today, given the upheavals this country has recently gone through, audiences may be more ready to accept the truths that this musical is offering.

The musical’s semi-autobiographical book is by Tony Kushner. He also wrote the lyrics for Jeanine Tesori’s searing and soaring score. The story revolves around the relationship (or lack thereof) between a Jewish family in St. Charles, Louisiana that employs Caroliine (Sharon D. Clarke) a thirty-nine year old Black single mother of three as their maid. The fateful year is 1963; the show begins on November 22nd, the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas — a pivotal moment in American history. But not for Caroline…and that is very much the point.

Nasia Thomas, Harper Miles, Nya, Arica Jackson and Sharon D Clarke

The plot is set off when Noah, the young Gellman son (played at our performance by Adam Makke`), is chastised by his new stepmother, Rose (Caissie Levy) for leaving change in his pants pockets. Caroline regularly retrieves the loose change when she washes and folds the Gellman’s clothes when she does the laundry in the hot, humid basement every day. To teach Noah a lesson, she tells Noah and Caroline that whatever money Noah leaves in his pockets will henceforth belong to Caroline. On the surface, from Rose’s perspective, this seems like a win-win idea: it teaches Noah to be more careful about money and it gives Caroline, who is barely surviving on the $30 per week she is being paid, a little extra money. 

But from Caroline’s perspective, it’s humiliating. She is being told to take pennies, dimes and nickels from a child; she protests but Rose insists. Even so, Caroline holds onto her pride and doesn’t take the money, until Noah decides to purposefully leave more coins in his pockets, upping the ante to quarters. Needing the money, Caroline finally starts to keep the change. Noah thinks he’s doing a wonderful, benevolent thing, but Caroline only resents him more and more.

There are a myriad of rich subplots intersecting this microcosm of the way money corrupts human relationships. We see that Caroline has a younger friend (Tamika Lawrence) who is also a maid; that friend is going to community college to try to better her life and urges Caroline to do the same. We see a tense relationship between Caroline and her oldest daughter (Samantha Williams) who, at one point, belittles her mother for being a maid. And we see a sorrowful unhappiness in the Gellman home with a distant husband/father (John Cariani).

The Company

And all of that comes to a head on Hanukkah, when Noah’s grandparents arrive, including Rose’s father, a left-wing firebrand from New York City. In the process of giving Noah his Hanukkah gelt (a gift) of a twenty dollar bill, he also explains, quite accurately, in terms of how this is going to play out — the ways in which money is valued. And this time, Noah really does accidentally leave the twenty dollar bill in his dirty laundry, which Caroline finds…

If the title hadn’t already been taken, Caroline, or Change could have been called An American Tragedy. Or perhaps The American Tragedy. The show moves along at a crisp pace set by director Michael Longhurst, who has properly tilted the show to be more about Caroline and her world and a little less about Noah and his world.

Harper Miles-Nasia Thomas-Sharon D Clarke-Arica Jackson-Caissie Levy

More than that, he has made sure that in the show’s interpretation, there are no villains  (and no heroes, either). All of the characters are flawed, authentic human beings — except for the bus (Kevin S. McAllister), the washing machine (Arica Jackson), the dryer (Kevin S. McAllister), the radio (Nasia Thomas/Nya/Harper Miles), and the moon (N’Kenge) — all of which are personified by a richly talented cast of singing actors.  

Speaking of the actors, Sharon D. Clarke gives a performance that transforms Caroline from cold steel to hot metal, and her singing is extraordinarily powerful, as well. Caissie Levy brings delicate nuance to what could be the thankless role of Rose. And Chip Zien is winning and wise as Rose’s father. Actually, the entire cast is sensational. And they are all in service to what will likely be the Best Revival of the 2021-22 Season. It’s hard to beat perfection.

Caroline or Change at Studio 54 on Broadway, 254 West 54 Street, thru January 9, 2022 – one intermission

Photos: Joan Marcus