How come you like me? I’m never nice to you,” says embittered maid Caroline (Tonya Pinkins) to Noah (Benjamin Platt), her employer’s 8-year-old son. For much of Tony Kushner’s sung-through chamber opera, one can’t help but wonder the same thing. Although Caroline is superbly played by Tony nominee Pinkins, and Kushner has written her with uncompromising honesty, she remains a remote, unsatisfying centerpiece for a musical. Her despair creates enough tension to sustain interest, but the story itself is slender and frequently feels as though it could function as a play with no music.
“Caroline, or Change,” which takes place in 1963 Lake Charles, La., sets up Caroline’s character through her interaction with singing appliances — dryer (Chuck Cooper), radio (Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks and Kenna Ramsey emulating the Supremes) and washing machine (Capathia Jenkins). These alter egos sing brilliantly, and their positive humor softens and humanizes Caroline more than her interaction with anyone in the story.
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As Noah, Platt has the charm and power to hold his own with Pinkins, and his preference for her company over his weak, widowed, clarinet-playing father, Stuart (David Costabile), and insecure stepmother, Rose (Veanne Cox), is dramatically portrayed when he tells Rose, “Caroline is stronger than my dad and you.”
Rose gets the central theme going when she scolds Noah for leaving change in his pants pockets and tells Caroline she can keep any money she finds doing laundry.
Noah accepts this until Caroline fights against returning a $20 bill he has inadvertently left in his pocket. The ugly, racist and anti-Semitic exchange that results is horrifying; it is so wounding it proves a dead weight to the production.
Kushner’s cautious resolution, where Caroline’s children are able to change in ways their mother can’t, makes cerebral sense without delivering the emotional catharsis needed.
The score, with lyrics by Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori, carefully attempts to approximate the rhythmic flow of conversation, and this approach sometimes achieves dramatic force. But Kushner’s ideas for lyrics are stronger than the lines themselves: Words are bent and twisted uneasily.
The larger canvas of his plays “Homebody/Kabul” and “Angels in America” gave him limitless room, but his lyrics — which cover civil rights, cultural gaps between blacks and whites and responses to President Kennedy’s death — try to say too much, and they lack incisive clarity.
Tesori appears constrained by the excessively verbal language. Her talent for tunes is infectiously clear in her writing for the girl group-oriented radio. Melodic skill shines in sequences with Caroline’s daughter, Emmie (charismatic Tony winner Anika Noni Rose), and an interlude with Noah and Caroline’s children that features appealingly upbeat choreography by Hope Clarke. In other places, Tesori holds back as though melody were an enemy, and her two-line couplets for Rose are chordally colorless.
Such visuals as a backdrop of hanging coins and the moon (Aisha de Haas) glowing through trees are magically lit by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Riccardo Hernandez’s basement set captures the sweltering discomfort of the room where Caroline sweats blood for $30 a week.
Portraying a character with more dimension than Caroline, Cox makes the rejected Rose funny and touchingly tortured. Alice Playten and Reathel Bean are cliched and stereotypical as Noah’s grandparents, but Costabile projects, via body language and his mournful clarinet playing, the grief of a man who has lost his beloved wife to cancer.
Pinkins’ 11 o’clock number, “Lot’s Wife,” a showstopper on Broadway, comes across with piercing intensity. Exciting as this segment is, “Caroline” remains a predominantly intellectual experience, avoiding sentiment so strenuously that it keeps us at an admiring, respectful distance.