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Jully Black and Evan LeFeuvre in Caroline, or Change.

Dahlia Katz

  • Caroline, or Change
  • Book and lyrics by Tony Kushner
  • Music by Jeanine Tesori
  • Director Robert McQueen
  • Actors Jully Black, Deborah Hay, Vanessa Sears
  • Company Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre Company
  • Venue The Winter Garden
  • City Toronto, Ont.
  • Year To Feb. 15

rating

3 out of 4 stars

Here’s a Change that’s easy to get behind: Jully Black’s career pivot from R&B star to musical-theatre performer.

The Juno-winning singer is currently making her stage debut in Caroline, or Change at the Winter Garden in Toronto – and it’s a scorcher.

Every note that she sings of composer Jeanine Tesori’s blues-and-gospel score is deeply felt, hardened and heartbroken and filled with the life experience of her character, Caroline Thibodeaux.

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There’s no empty showing off here. Ms. Black uses her musical powers to communicate the exhaustion, the anger and the sadness of this African-American maid and single mother of four who feels stuck as change happens all around her in 1963 Louisiana.

Caroline, or Change, a 2003 sung-through musical that is also being revived on Broadway this season, has a highbrow pedigree – lyrics by the playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America), as well as music by Tony-winning Ms. Tesori (Fun Home).

It begins in the momentous American fall of 1963 – shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and just before president John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dealey Plaza.

Change is coming much more slowly for Caroline, who spends her days doing laundry down underground in the Gellman family’s basement – though, as she sings in the opening number, “There ain’t no underground in Louisiana, there is only underwater.”

In the show’s unusual, magical realist style, the physical objects around the drowning Caroline have singing spirits incarnated by other performers: Keisha T. Fraser plays the washing machine, while the deeper-than-deep baritone Stewart Adam McKensy heats things up as the dryer.

Another otherworldly character: The Moon is played by opera star Measha Brueggergosman, who walks back and forth up on high, occasionally stopping to pour her healing, silvery voice down on the suffering citizens of Lake Charles, La.

Eight years after it was first mounted in Toronto, the same creative team has been reunited for this bigger version at the Winter Garden.

Dahlia Katz

The Jewish family Caroline works for is, indeed, suffering, too: Eleven-year-old Noah (the sweet Evan Lefeuvre) has lost his mother to cancer and lost his clarinetist father Stuart (Damien Atkins) to an engulfing grief.

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A new stepmother, Rose (Deborah Hay), has recently appeared on the scene from New York – and, overwhelmed by the major problems facing the Gellman household, she’s decided to focus on fixing a minor one.

Embarrassed that Noah keeps leaving coins in his pockets, Rose tells Caroline – underpaid at $30 a week – that she can keep any she finds in the laundry.

At first, Caroline refuses to take money from a child, but as the bleach cup fills up with quarters and dimes, she starts to think about what a little extra could do for her three kids at home and the one overseas in Vietnam.

The genius of Mr. Kushner’s musical – a semi-autobiographical show in the mould of Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold”... and the Boys – is in showing how big emotions can spring from such seemingly low economic stakes, how pennies can tear apart a person’s self-esteem and get between people who should be allies.

Ms. Hay makes Rose’s agony both amusing and affecting, while Mr. Atkins’s performance as the sad dad is its own Chekhovian one-act. There there’s Vanessa Sears exploding with vitality as Emmie, Caroline’s daughter who is unwilling to submit to any limits.

Caroline, or Change was first mounted in Toronto by the Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre at the Berkeley Street Theatre in 2012, in a memorable production that won big at both the Dora Mavor Moore Awards and the Toronto Theatre Critics Awards that year.

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Eight years on, the same two companies have reunited the same creative team for this bigger version at the gorgeous Winter Garden. These are independent, not-for-profit companies attempting to do a show on the scale of Mirvish.

While the top-notch performances absolutely do fill this larger theatre, director Robert McQueen’s production has experienced some growing pains. The most obvious and, as such, inexplicable problem here is the decision to have Caroline’s “basement” scenes take place in front of the stage, rather than on it. I had heads blocking my view and I was seated only in Row E.

There are other design flaws. The world of Caroline, or Change is a porous, poetic one – but there’s something about how Mr. McQueen sometimes plunks actors around Michael Gianfrancesco’s stylistically uneven two-level set that makes time and place confusing – and that Kimberly Purtell’s watery lighting does not clarify.

Additionally, there’s a muddiness in the vocals when more than one person is singing at a time, suggesting Peter McBoyle’s sound design needs a tweak.

None of this impedes the emotional power of Caroline, or Change and Ms. Black’s performance in it. And yet, I can’t brush these issues totally aside because I had to explain some of what was going on to my seatmate – who had not seen the show before – at intermission.

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