Before Kathryn Stockett's The Help was a book, let alone an Oscar-nominated movie, playwright Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame and composer Jeanine Tesori teamed up to tackle similar subject matter with Caroline, or Change.
In the 2004 sung-through musical, getting a sharp-as-a-tack Canadian premiere thanks to Acting Up Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre Company, Louisianan Caroline Thibodeaux (Arlene Duncan of Little Mosque on the Prairie) works as a maid for the Gellman family in the fateful year of 1963.
While the African-American single mother of four toils away angrily in the basement doing laundry, upstairs, eight-year-old Noah Gellman (Michael Levinson) is locked in a battle of wills with his new stepmother, Rose (Shaw Festival veteran Deborah Hay).
His widowed father Stuart (a touchingly absent Cameron MacDuffee) ignores the situation and hides in the corner playing the same mournful phrase on his clarinet over and over.
The change referred to in the title has a double meaning, which Kushner perhaps underscores a few too many times in his libretto.
First of all, there's the civil-rights movement making its way through the South at different speed for different African-Americans. Another maid, Dotty (Alana Hibbert), is studying at night school, while Caroline is stuck in her basement purgatory for the foreseeable future.
Then, there's Noah's allowance – coins he keeps leaving behind in his pockets. In order to teach her stepson a lesson about the value of money, or so she believes, Rose declares that Caroline can keep whatever change she finds while doing the laundry.
While Caroline, who Noah adores from afar, initially objects to taking money from a child, in the end, she gives in, lamenting, "I am mean and strong and tough but . . . / Thirty dollars [a week]ain't enough."
After Noah leaves the $20 bill that he received from Rose's leftist father (Shawn Wright) as a Hanukkah present, however, a crisis erupts.
In addition to its Jewish and African-American characters, Caroline, or Change features a variety of fantastical characters who act as a chorus: a sympathetic washing machine; a trio of Motown singers representing the radio; and an opera-singing moon.
Sterling Jarvis stands out as a bus that announces that the President is dead in a song that captures all the horror of the moment, as well as a rough-and-tumble dryer that taunts and teases Caroline with memories of her absent, abusive husband. Jarvis's performance as the latter is so richly enjoyable, he should have his own Southern spinoff: Drying Miss Daisy, perhaps?
Director Robert McQueen confidently carves a clear path through a sprawling show that can seem a strange mix of musical Marxist dialectic and Beauty and the Beast. Hay bring her comic chops as well as a underlying sense of sadness to fish-out-of-water Rose, while the young Levinson gives an extraordinarily mature performance in the difficult part of Noah.
Michael Gianfrancesco's sprawling set fills the Berkeley Street Theatre to the brim, while Kimberly Purtell's lighting stitches it together with the space's brick walls.
Kushner writes more poetically than anyone else about the painful process of change. In Angels in America, he gave a memorable description of how it occurs: "God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in; he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard; he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn."
In Caroline, or Change, the American playwright makes the same point more succinctly: "It hurts to change; it actually hurts."
But, for all his eloquence on the subject of change, Kushner has more difficulty dramatizing it on the personal level. The chief flaw in his musical is that only Noah – partly based on Kushner himself as a child – has a character arc; everyone else is stuck on the spin cycle.
Both times I've seen Caroline, or Change, the climax of the show has stumbled: A moment where Caroline snaps and gives in to her inner hatred gets a laugh, where it should get a gasp, leading to an oddly droopy denouement.
Indeed, while Kushner is in top form with his satirical depiction of the Gellman family, he consistently struggles to find a convincing voice to bring to life the illiterate Caroline.
Even with Duncan giving a powerful performance as Caroline – vocally and dramatically – the maid still remains a symbolic cipher at the centre of the show.
Caroline, or Change runs until Feb. 12.
Caroline, or Change
- Book and lyrics by Tony Kushner
- Music by Jeanine Tesori
- Directed by Robert McQueen
- Starring Arlene Duncan
- At the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto