Caroline, or Change, now playing at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre, is a musical clarion call for change at all levels. Whether it is personal change and transformation at the most personal level, larger historical change (this very intense musical is set against the assassination of President Kennedy and the rising Civil Rights movement) or the very literal “change” that jingles in ones’ pockets —this theme permeates the very delicate membrane of this extremely psychological and penetrating musical experiment.
I use the work “experiment” quite broadly and in a complimentary tone, for this is a musical for extremely rarified tastes as there are so many levels to absorb and we are, most decidedly, in Tony Kushner terrain (Angels in America, Slavs!, etc.) where there are infinite possibilities and no easy answers. Playwright Kushner is responsible for the probing and poetic book and lyrics and he has collaborated with theatrical composer Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Fun Home, etc.) —the combination of these two talents has resulted in one of the most unique and iconoclastic musical theatre experiences I have ever had.
The initiative and foresight that it would take to produce this intricate material could be a daunting task but the Round House Theatre under the superb Direction of Matthew Gardiner has succeeded most admirably (where other timid souls might fear to tread!). The fairly large ensemble cast excels particularly well with their vocalizing abetted by the Musical Direction of Conductor Jon Kalbfleisch (performing double duty on Piano as well—) who conducts an outstanding orchestra of nine members.
Ms. Tesori’s music intermingles many styles including rhythm and blues, pop, Motown, Gospel, jazz and klezmer—thus, creating an eclectic ambience that fits in well with Kushner’s myriad writing styles. Adding to this heady brew of innovation is the “sung-through” style of writing that is so akin to opera in structure; music vignettes flow fluidly throughout and portray the everyday minutiae of everyday lives as well as the more dramatic highpoints.
Musical moments of power and nuance embody each character organically and spontaneously as each interior thought is expressed without the usual machinations and fanfare that usually announce that a “song is coming on”. Each musical or emotional narrative moment is presented in a poetic manner like a transitory, elusive, and fleeting moment in time.
As Caroline, actress Nova Y. Payton is outstanding in all aspects. This lead role is extremely demanding and Ms. Payton is rarely off –stage to catch her breath. Ms. Payton brings the quiet fortitude and perseverance needed as well as the impassioned fury of a woman who has been holding so much hurt inside all her life.
Ms. Payton’s acting skills were particularly touching in her scenes with her young ward Noah Gellman (Griffin McCahill). Continual squabbles over the money left in the pockets of clothes she must wash are one of the highlights of this musical and a good opportunity for word play of all kinds. Ms. Payton also excelled with her interchanges with her friend Dotty (Awa Sal Secka) and her defiant daughter Emmie (Korinn Walfall).
Ms. Payton’s delivery of the lengthy and emotional aria entitled “Lot’s Wife” was a “tour de force” of vocal timing, resonance and inflection. Payton’s character of extreme caution suddenly gave way to an easing of her inflexibility and an opening of her heart that was thrilling and a privilege to witness.
As the young questioning boy, Noah Gellman, Griffin McCahill captured perfectly the yearnings of a lonely boy who does not get along with his stepmother (Dorea Schmidt) and who does not relate to his father (Will Gartshore). Mr. McCahill’s role of the precocious and quasi-neurotic boy is a musical staple going back to the role of the young boy in March of the Falsettos and the young boy in Ragtime but here, however, Mr. McCahill brings freshness to the role.
A pantheistic thrust is brought forward by Delores King Williams as the Moon. Nature and earth imagery runs rampant throughout the musical. A bit of show biz brio is brought into the proceedings as a very “Supremes-like” trio of sequined –clad singers interject in the proceedings. Labeled as “The Radio”, Felicia Curry, Olivia Russell and Kara Tameika Watkins sang with verve and sassiness.
Particularly compelling was Theresa Cunningham who sang her heart out as the Washing Machine. (I was reminded of the singing teakettle and clock in Beauty and the Beast!) V. Savoy Mcllwain shone as well—as the Dryer and the Bus.
Will Gartshore brought an interesting stolidity of countenance and a continually intriguing clarinet segue way to add to the often quirky ambience of this musical.
Ms. Korinn Walfall (Emmie) miraculously makes her defiant, rebellious character sympathetic, inspiring, and intriguing.
Awa Sal Secka (Dotty) brings an earthiness and honesty to her character that enlivens the sadder aspects of the musical.
Format fits content perfectly with the Scenic Design by Jason Sherwood –as a revolving stage rotated at appropriate moments to show contrasting levels of the Gellman family’s house from a top tiered bedroom to the dreary basement that Caroline works in daily. Beautiful wood paneling added to the texture of the design.
Lighting Design by Grant Wilcoxen was evocative throughout and Costume Design by Frank Labovitz was top-notch in evoking the period portrayed.
Like such ground breaking musicals as Hair, Sweeney Todd, Rent and Hamilton—-Caroline, or Change breaks all the conventional musical rules and becomes a transformative experience. Just as Caroline finally breaks from her obdurate fear of change, Kushner and Tesori remind us that nothing can stop the inexorable and inevitable pull of change.
As the ending of the musical approaches, pride in the future of a new generation was inspiring and heartfelt —a much needed sentiment in these current days that often feel like a dystopian novel come to life. Amidst the harsh realities of life, there is always a glimmer of radical possibility and hope —this is the message of this groundbreaking musical.
Bravos all around to Round House Theatre for producing this humanistic and audacious musical! Caroline, Or Change will change you!
Review #1: ‘Caroline, Or Change’ at Round House Theatre by Ramona Harper.