REVIEW: Astoria Performing Arts Center’s “Caroline, or Change”
Generally speaking, two maxims guide my theatergoing life: will travel for Sondheim, and nothing stands in the way of “Caroline, or Change”.
Last winter I flew to London to catch the acclaimed Chichester Festival Theatre production of “Caroline” on the West End (read my review). And last night I braved the N train to Astoria, Queens to see the Astoria Performing Arts Center (APAC)’s staging under the direction of Artistic Director Dev Bondarin—the first time, to my knowledge, that this show has played New York since the Broadway production closed in 2004.
Contrary to what the name might suggest, APAC is not a facility but rather a local theatre company that uses the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens as its performance venue. With a mission to bring high quality theatre to Astoria, last season APAC produced Sondheim and Goldman’s “Follies”. Equally as ambitious, their current mainstage production of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s 2003 musical masterpiece “Caroline, or Change” is an impressive achievement for this non-profit, Off-Off Broadway company.
An original musical inspired by Mr. Kushner’s own childhood experiences, “Caroline” tells the story of Caroline Thibodeaux (LaDonna Burns), a black maid working for thirty dollars a week for a Jewish family in 1963 Lake Charles, Louisiana. A single mother of four children who has been hardened by life and finds herself both impoverished and in a spiral of deep despair, Caroline’s daily company are the washing machine (Marcie Henderson), the dryer (Tony Perry), radio (Amanda Bailey, Nattalyee Randall, and Joël Rene), and eight-year-old Noah Gellman (Sabatino Cruz).
The plot of this almost entirely sung-through musical is fairly simple, but the themes explored—in typical Kushner fashion—are endlessly grand. Rose Stopnick (Lauren Singerman), Noah’s Yankee transplant step-mother, hatches a plan to teach Noah a lesson by informing Caroline that while doing the laundry any loose change she finds in Noah’s pockets will go toward augmenting her measly salary.
Instead of discouraging him, though, this plan only brings Noah delight as he imagines his pocket change enriching the lives of Caroline’s school-age children, Emmie (Sharaé Moultrie), Jackie (Milanis Clark), and Joe (Nave’ Murray)—a fourth child, Larry, is off in Vietnam—and begins leaving it on purpose. When Grandpa Stopnick (Gordon Stanley) visits for Chanukah, he gifts Noah a twenty dollar bill that sparks a vicious fight with Caroline when Noah absent-mindedly leaves it in his pocket. Walking off the job, Caroline is forced to reconcile her sorrow and find a way to keep moving forward.
Throughout the immediacy of the story, Mr. Kushner weaves in a bounty of larger thematic strands touching on the twin scourges of racism and anti-Semitism, capitalist exploitation, and theories of political change. Caroline’s journey is a quiet one, both poignant and heartbreaking, and the relationships among all the characters—including Caroline’s friend, fellow maid Dotty (Nattalyee Randall), Noah’s clarinetist father Stuart (Scott Mendelsohn), and the Gellman grandparents (Greg Horton and Navida Stein) who speak in chorus—are beautifully examined.
Ms. Bondarin does a fine job staging this intimate piece on a stationary set by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader, smartly using the space to demonstrate the emotional distances between characters and the shifting scene settings. As Caroline, Ms. Burns sings the vocally challenging score with great aplomb, boasting both the confidence and the technical skill needed to anchor the show. This is critical, since any production of “Caroline” lives or dies on the strength of its titular character.
The balance of the cast demonstrate a mélange of vocal power, from Ms. Randall’s boom to Ms. Bailey’s whisper, all of which could be balanced with the use of microphones were the theatre not as small as it is. Among the wonderful cast assembled, Ms. Burns is a standout, alongside Ms. Randall as both Dotty and a member of the radio trio, and Ms. Singerman, who gives the tightest, most compelling performance as Rose.
While the score is not performed with the same punch and power as it was on Broadway or in London, it is a testament to the intrinsic strength of Mr. Kushner and Ms. Tesori’s writing that the story still radiates as well as it does. I was moved to tears several times by the resonance of Caroline’s portrait and the way in which so much of the struggle within the story remains the struggle of America today, nearly sixty years later.
As the Moon (Joël Rene)—one more emblem of cycle and change woven into the show—sings: “change come fast, and change come slow, but change come”. This brilliant musical’s dramatization of the pain of progress is worth visiting for the immensity and insight of that message alone.
Bottom Line: Fans of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s “Caroline, or Change” who are eager to see this 2003 musical masterpiece on stage should check out the Astoria Performing Arts Center’s ambitious and well-executed production. While the trimmings are simple and the vocal performances vary in quality, the strength of the story still radiates.
“Caroline, or Change”
Astoria Performing Arts Center
at the Broccoli Theater
Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens
21-12 30th Road
Astoria, NY 11102
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: May 2, 2019
Final Performance: May 25, 2019