Early last year, a panel of experts sat down for New York Magazine and debated which musical should be named the greatest of all time. I won’t quibble with the merit of the question or the result (a three-way tie for Gypsy, Sweeney Todd and – really, guys? - Guys and Dolls). What was more interesting was the process. Each expert made a list of 36 musicals. When the lists were compared, they struck away any show that only had one vote. This left 23 musicals in consideration. Of that list, only one show had made it onto everyone’s list.
That show – Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s eclectic show, Caroline, or Change – is having its Canadian premiere right now and you’re running out of chances to catch it. A co-production between Acting Up Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre, the show is one of the most unique, not just in the canon of American musicals, but in the history of the modern stage.
So what makes the show such a critical darling?
Not surprisingly, it’s also one of the most difficult. With an epigrammatic text, lyrics that resemble poetic recitative and a character list that includes physical manifestations of appliances and the moon, Tony Kushner’s libretto is hardly mainstream. And Tesori’s score borrows liberally from gospel, pop, opera and classic Broadway, making the sound of the show almost impossible to describe to anyone who hasn’t heard it.
So what makes the show such a critical darling? For one, there’s the subject matter. Set during a few historic months in the South between 1963 – 64, the show concerns the relationship between Caroline Thibodeaux, a colored maid, and Noah Gellman, the seven year old Jewish boy whose family employs her.
The title gives us exactly what the show is about: the conflict between Caroline, who hides in the Gellman’s basement, and the changes in the world around her, which threaten to draw her out.
Noah adores Caroline but don’t expect this to be a sappy feel-good story à la The Help. There’s a good dollop of tension between Caroline and Noah, and their relations are as stormy as the Civil Rights era that forms the play's backdrop. The show itself is like a living novel: the plot is sparse, allowing for some finely-wrought character exploration.
The title gives us exactly what the show is about: the conflict between Caroline, who hides in the Gellman’s basement, and the changes in the world around her, which threaten to draw her out. The challenge of change is one of Tony Kushner’s continuing themes and in Caroline he gives us its most stubborn opponent: beaten down by life, she does not appear to have an activist’s soul. But that doesn’t mean she can’t inspire one.
Both Acting Up and Obsidian have racked racked up dozens of Dora Nominations and employed a roster of Canada’s finest talent.
Toronto’s Acting Up Stage Company is developing a history of challenging shows like this one; Since 2005, they’ve produced other socially charged shows like Parade (about the lynching of Leo Frank) and A Man of No Importance (confronting one’s sexuality in 1960s Dublin). Joining them are the folks at Obsidian Theatre who, like Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop, are devoted to bringing the Black voice to the Canadian stage.
Both Acting Up and Obsidian have racked up dozens of Dora Nominations and employed a roster of Canada’s finest talent. Caroline, or Change continues the tradition with a cast that includes Arlene Duncan (Little Mosque on the Prairie), gospel singer Linda Larmond and Deborah Hay, fresh from her stint as Eliza Doolittle in the Shaw’s wildly successful production of My Fair Lady.
Caroline, or Change is a challenging show and, as I said, it’s hardly perfect. It takes some time for the central conflict to kick in and many people won’t find Caroline’s character arc as satisfying as they’d like it to be. But this is hardly enough reason to stay away. Ultimately, the reason those experts could all agree on the show’s worth is because more than many other shows, Caroline, or Change demonstrates the power and potential of the stage. Like the era it describes, it is worthy both in its goals and for everything it fights to be. It is a show that points theatre in the right direction; and it may someday prove a pivotal part of theatre’s continued evolution.
Caroline, or Change continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto until February 12. For tickets call 416.368.3110 or visit www.actingupstage.com.