The musical Caroline, or Change currently playing at Syracuse Stage is one of the best productions I’ve seen in twelve years of reviewing. Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner and Tony Nominated composer Jeanine Tesori have created a musical that has all the depths and fully realized characters of a dramatic play. Almost entirely sung, this powerful story deals with all kinds of change, from change left in a pants’ pocket, through personal change to changes in the national consciousness.
The play is set in 1963 Louisiana at the beginning of the civil rights movement and the time of the Kennedy assassination. Caroline is an African American maid working for the Gellman family. Noah Gellman, nine years old and dealing with the death of his mother, spends a lot of time in the basement laundry that Caroline refers to as “underground.” She’s a single mother of four trying her best to raise her family.
Although this is serious subject matter, there are some great moments of humor, like the girls’ trio who appear from the radio to comment on Caroline’s thoughts and the devilish dryer who doubles as a singing bus. I especially liked the Washing Machine’s terrific voice and smooth agitation.
The physical production is excellent, from William Bloodgood’s slightly abstract and smoothly moving set to Paul Hackenmueller’s effective lighting. Candace Donnelly’s costumes are also very good, especially the Radio Girls’ pink outfits and Rose’s Chanukah dress.
There’s not a weak link in the cast. They’re all fine actors who are able to handle the difficult score as well as the difficult emotions. It’s a large cast and exceptionally balanced, so instead of picking and choosing I’ll just mention one; the title character. Greta Oglesby plays Caroline with fierce intensity and private vulnerability. Miss Oglesby shows us every facet of this complex and troubled character. The emotional and vocal power of her Act II song Lot’s Wife just about stops the show and left me weeping.
Christopher Drobny has done a fine job with the musical direction and the concealed orchestra sounds great. Sound designer Jonathan Herter has done an expert job of balancing the musical elements.
Director/Choreographer Marcella Lorca has done a masterful job of directing and staging the piece. She’s helped her actors convey complete characterizations, sometimes in as little as two lines.
I’d like to thank Artistic Director Timothy Bond for bringing such a wonderful production of this important musical to Syracuse Stage. If there’s any way you can get to Syracuse, is well worth the trip.
On a scale of one to five the Syracuse Stage production of Caroline, or Change gets five oranges and a juicer. For North Country Public Radio I’m Connie Meng.