It may enshrine the word “change” in its title, but Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s new musical, now on Broadway, is essentially a study in stasis. It is not a tale of emotional and social transformations but of the tensions that precede them, the people that resist or elude them. It’s a telling snapshot of a particular time and place, focusing with sharp clarity on characters captured at a fraught turning point in history — a culture’s and a family’s. It offers the satisfactions of fine photography — handsome composition, interesting detail, an evocative use of shadow. But these are not precisely the strengths most of us look for in musicals. Musicals we expect to move, and to move us. “Caroline, or Change,” for all its intelligence and its eloquence, is short on feeling, and on drama.
There are, to be sure, many mobile elements in George C. Wolfe’s production, which has been subtly polished for Broadway. It is a model of cogency and integration, knitting together the many strands of Kushner’s book with maximum efficiency on sets by Riccardo Hernandez that leave plenty of dark space for the world of the imagination, where some of the musical’s more emotionally potent encounters occur. The acting is excellent, the singing still better.
Tesori’s score has a smooth and subtle locomotion. She samples a wide spectrum of musical styles with fluidity and unforced grace. Musical colors are deftly matched to character and mood: Caroline Thibodeaux (Tonya Pinkins), the embittered maid who is the musical’s central character, communicates in dark, rumbling riffs that proclaim the disappointments that dog her spirit. Only in a flashback to happier days does her music move to the spirited rhythms that almost always accompany the musings of her exuberant teenage daughter, Emmie (the vibrant Anika Noni Rose). Emmie bounces to the sound of a changing world that frightens Caroline into fearful scorn.
Caroline’s employer, Rose Stopnick (Veanne Cox), has her own musical language, too, shorn of sustained melody to reflect the tangle of anxieties that beset and distract her. These involve her moody maid, who rebuffs Rose’s friendly offering of a cabbage-and-corned beef casserole (“My kids don’t like it. Turn they noses up”); her moody husband Stuart (David Costabile), who has withdrawn from the marriage to play a mournful duet with his clarinet; and her moody stepson Noah (Harrison Chad), who still misses his dead mother, and has forged an odd emotional bond with Caroline. It is odd because, aside from letting him light her daily cigarette, she takes no interest in his puppyish affection. (Repeat viewings of “Caroline” — the Broadway visit was this critic’s third — inspire growing affection for the put-upon Rose, and for Cox’s bright, funny performance; somewhere inside “Caroline, or Change” is another musical striving to break free: “Rose, or Tsuris.”)
Rose’s attempt to curb Noah’s carelessness with his money — she tells Caroline to keep any change she finds in his pockets when doing the laundry — sets in motion a series of events that will threaten to rupture the uneasy truce that exists among the musical’s emotionally isolated but interdependent characters, yoked together by economic necessity in 1963 Louisiana. But this development doesn’t prove to be the catalyst that sets these characters along unexpected paths; it merely darkens and deepens the established contours of their relationships, and underscores the economic deprivation that has poisoned Caroline’s spirit.
“All changes come from small changes,” sings the Supremes-like chorus in the opening scene of the second act. But the only progress charted by Caroline is of a sad and dubious kind; change, for Caroline, is only for the worse. She begins taking home the quarters and dimes to give her kids a much-needed treat, but when Noah leaves a $20 bill in his pocket, the conflict leads to a confrontation in which hateful words are exchanged.
It is an ugly moment, but an oddly unmoving one — Kushner is so scrupulous in refusing to sentimentalize the relationship between Caroline and Noah, ostensibly the focus of the musical, that there isn’t much to be sundered. (And Caroline’s tongue has been so persistently sharp that her outburst of anti-Semitism isn’t quite the shock it might be.) Caroline’s subsequent song of self-flagellation is similarly a big moment — splendidly delivered in Pinkins’ quietly forceful performance — that is more an intellectual than an emotional occasion for the audience.
Caroline repudiates the hate that has burst from her heart at the prospect of even a small financial windfall. But she renounces hope with it, too: “Some folks do all kinds of things/and black folks someday live like kings/and someday sunshine shine all day … but not for me, not not for me!” Only her children will reap the benefits of the coming changes. It is Emmie, a subsidiary character, who closes the musical on its note of uplift.
As is to be expected from Kushner, “Caroline, or Change” is acute in its analysis of a complicated social ecosystem. It is smart and often witty, too, in its observation of the wary, rarely explored interaction between liberal Jewish culture of the 1960s and the black culture of the South. But it’s hard to shake the sense that the musical is more successful at dissecting social dynamics than bringing to full theatrical life the human beings caught up in them.
In truth, to this observer, the character of Caroline almost seems to have been distorted by the unflinching clarity of the author’s gaze: Kushner is careful to bring forth for our understanding the forces that have shaped Caroline — that have broken her spirit — but he’s left a vital element out of her character, one that leaves an emotional hole at the center of his musical: a heart.