Musical Caroline, or Change explores race and relationships from the laundry room

Rounding out its 34th season, the Aurora Fox tackles a challenging musical with Caroline, Or Change, which opened April 5.

Directed by Kenny Moten, creator of Motones vs. Jerseys, this Tony Kushner-penned story revolves around a black maid (Caroline) working for a middle-class Jewish family in Louisiana right around the time of the JFK assassination.

If that seems like a bit of an unusual setup for a modern musical well, it is. This is a curious show altogether, full of strange pairings, discordant music, a jumble of musical styles and a herky-jerky story that seems to end up more or less where it began.

This ain’t Oklahoma!, kids, Caroline, or Change is not the kind of musical with big, bright music-and-dance numbers and repetitious melodies you find yourself whistling as you leave the theater. There’s very little spoken dialogue, meaning some of the exposition is worked out through the signing of non-songs that aren’t especially melodious. These bits are interspersed with some genuine numbers ranging from bluesy and spiritual to Motown and klezmer.

Yep, klezmer — or what you might think of as clarinet-heavy Jewish wedding music.

It’s a strong production, though, with a lot of standout performances and a racially charged plotline that’s, unfortunately, as relevant today as ever. At the center as Caroline is Mary Louise Lee, a bold, powerful singer and stage presence who could carry the whole show on her back. She’s supported by her own mini-Greek chorus in the form of three sequined black backup singers (Lisa Young, Krisangla Washington and Betty Hart) — collectively called “Radio.”

Stuck in the hot basement with the newfangled washer and dryer that torment her, Caroline is an ill-tempered and ill-used middle-aged woman bitter at the fact that her $30-a-week pay isn’t cutting it. (The down-and-out character who’s still chipper and ready to rise above it all has been done to death, so I appreciate the fact that Caroline wasn’t ready to soar over her difficulties.)

Along with Radio, the washer and dryer have their own representative voices, played by Rajdulari and Leonard Barrett, Jr. Good and evil seem to equate to washer and dryer, although it took me a bit to figure out who was what. As the dryer, Barret plays an oleaginous devil, while Rajdulari’s washer is an earthier sort of goddess — not what you’d typically think of for an old Maytag but somehow it works.

It’s a crowded basement indeed, with the other frequent visitor being Noah Gellman (played alternate nights by Nathaniel Waite-Lutz and Sophia Dotson), the young son of the family who’s intrigued by Caroline.

And this is where the friction lies.[rev_slider alias=”Caroline”]

Loose change

OK, so Noah’s father is a professional clarinet player named Stuart Gellman (Ben Hilzer) who’s also a widower. His new wife, Rose (Maggie Tisdale), is nice enough but she’s no mom replacement in the eyes of Noah, who says he hates her. Attaching himself to Caroline instead, Noah is a pain in her ass who seems to think he’s more charming than he is. His tragic flaw, as it were, is the inability to remove change from his pockets before tossing clothes in the hamper, and Rose tells the dirt-poor Caroline to keep any coins she finds.

Rose’s continued attempts to foist tiny bonuses on Caroline is brought up repeatedly, ranging from the aforementioned change to some kind of cabbage dish Caroline rejects outright (“It smells.”) When Noah’s New York grandfather (Wes Munsil as Mr. Stopnick) visits for Chanukah and gives the kid a twenty, Noah, of course, leaves it in his pocket and Caroline snaps it up per the deal with Rose.

This culminates in a scene where Noah tells Caroline he wishes there were a bomb to kill all the blacks and Caroline tells Noah about how Jews will burn in hell.

Strong stuff.

Race and relations

Amidst all of this, we’re treated to some fine singing performances by Lee and the Radio, as well as by her friend Dotty (Hart) and teenage daughter Emmie (Washington). The relationships between these three women were, to me, the most interesting of the show as they poignantly depicted the plight and struggle of black women during the Civil Rights era from a more everyday angle.

The versatile Hart is a strong singer, and Washington has a sweet, high voice that commands attention.

Upstage behind the set, a six-piece band led by Trent Hines did a great job pinballing around the various musical styles laid down by Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the music alongside Kushner’s book and lyrics.

Caroline, or Change likely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it follows a nice path along the Fox’s stated mission this year to bring more diversity to the stage. This show features plenty of roles for black actors, including Caroline’s two younger boys — played charmingly by Owen Zitek and and Kobe Johnson.

On the other side of the repressed-minority coin, the Jewish parents are played convincingly by Hilzer and Tisdale, and Munsil has a great scene where he alternately taunts Noah with the twenty and argues with Emmie about race. We also meet Stuart’s parents, played by Lee Ann Scherlong and Joel Silverman.

The show runs through May 5.