At the raw climax of the brutally beautiful new musical "Caroline, or Change," a black maid and a young Jewish boy trade vicious taunts. The boy, Noah, who has long adored the maid, Caroline, is irate after she refuses to return a $20 bill he carelessly left in pants to be laundered. "President Johnson has built a bomb special-made to kill all Negroes," Noah sings in spiteful anger. "I hope he drops this bomb on you!"
Caroline, played with sullen stoniness by the wondrous Tonya Pinkins, offers a scalding riposte in the show, set in Louisiana late in 1963. "Hell's so hot it makes flesh fry," she replies. "And Hell's where Jews go when they die."
Marcus Carl Franklin, Anika Noni Rose, Harrison Chad and Kevin Ricardo Tate in "Caroline, or Change."
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The fiery imagery suggests all-out war, but the conflict between these two has none of the clarity of hate. Envy, bitterness, resentment, loneliness, trust, mistrust, protectiveness, hero-worship: These are the feelings, both hot and cold, that surge between servant and child in this wrenching musical that paints a telling portrait of the complex relationship between blacks and Jews, groups that in this country have come to know each other well -- and not at all.
With a libretto by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori, the all-sung "Caroline, or Change," at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, is by no means a perfect musical; its creators cannot resist, for example, an inspirational, city-on-the-hill-style ending, and some important characters are left strangely opaque. Yet the show, directed by George C. Wolfe, must be regarded as a landmark, certainly one of the most significant musicals to reach the New York stage in recent years. It's a pop opera about, of all things, empathy, about the valiant, futile, ennobling effort to penetrate another's consciousness, to slip, as it were, into another person's skin.
The show has divided the New York critics, who have either fallen rapturously under its spell or shoved it into a lowlier category of the boringly earnest. There's been discussion of a move to Broadway from its downtown digs, and a debate over whether it has the commercial appeal for a sustained run. As one in the camp of the spellbound, I say the potential length of its Broadway stay is not as important as the possibility that it gets one at all. "Caroline, or Change" deserves at least an opportunity for a wider audience to discover it.
It's almost unheard of nowadays for musicals to get to the emotional core of anything. In "Caroline, or Change," Kushner and Tesori give us heart aplenty. The story takes place in the home of the Gellmans, one of the few Jewish families in Lake Charles, La. -- it also happens to be Kushner's home town. In the spectacular opening scene, Caroline is down there, doing the wash and singing unsentimentally about her despair: "Nothing ever happen underground in Louisiana / 'Cause they ain't no underground in Louisiana / There is only underwater."
Into this grimly realistic environment, the authors inject more than a little fantasy. As ebulliently conjured by Wolfe and costume designer Paul Tazewell, the basement appliances are musical spirits, depicted by actors perched above them. The washing machine (Capathia Jenkins) channels Miriam Makeba; the dryer (Chuck Cooper) James Brown; the radio (Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks, Brandi Chevonne Massey) the Supremes. They fill the basement, rendered in all of its claustrophobic dullness by Riccardo Hernandez, with Tesori's lush '60s rhythm and blues, the most satisfying score this composer (Tony-nominated for "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Twelfth Night") has yet produced. And more to the point, the music is a link to a universe of feeling that Caroline keeps at arm's length.
Noah (Harrison Chad) is correspondingly at odds with the upstairs world. His cold and remote father (David Costabile) offers no solace to a boy who's lost his mother and feels little but contempt for the stepmother (Veanne Cox) who so desperately craves his acceptance. Noah is as bereft as Caroline, and though the musical details the interior lives of people around both of them -- particularly of Caroline's oldest daughter, Emmie (the gifted Anika Noni Rose) -- the parallels in Noah's and Caroline's processing of grief are what grips us, what sustains the evening.
The device of the African American housekeeper may be perceived by some as a little passe. (There are echoes here, too, of Athol Fugard's searing apartheid drama "Master Harold . . . and the Boys.") Caroline may in fact be an archetype, but for the librettist she's an accessible bridge between blacks and whites in the prime of the civil rights era. Race, particularly as it pertains to relations between blacks and Jews, has cropped up in Kushner's work before; one of the most frank and vibrant exchanges in "Angels in America" takes place in the hospital room of redbaiter Roy Cohn as he talks to the black nurse Belize, describing the solidarity between the groups as a sham.
In "Caroline, or Change," it's not hypocrisy that Kushner and Tesori document but the idea that the chasm is wider than most Jews, in particular, would care to admit. The musical suggests that blacks and Jews, mainstays of liberal politics in America, have never really been on the same page, even on such sacred topics as John F. Kennedy. One of the most moving segments of the musical is the news of Kennedy's assassination reaching Lake Charles (the announcement is made in a heartbreaking sequence with Cooper playing the role of an old bus). But the word is received much differently by Noah's family, who hail Kennedy as a dead martyr, than by Caroline's daughter and friends, who view him as a disappointment, as promise unfulfilled. "Our almost-friend is gone away," sings Caroline's chatty neighbor.
This gap in perspective is never fully closed in "Caroline, or Change." Noah and Caroline battle to a civilized and respectful draw. But oh, what a lovely war, especially as embodied by Pinkins and her resolute, dry-eyed, unforgiving performance.
Caroline, or Change, book and lyrics by Tony Kushner; music by Jeanine Tesori. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Sets, Riccardo Hernandez; lighting, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; costumes, Paul Tazewell; sound, Jon Weston; orchestrations, Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert, Buryl Red; music director, Linda Twine; choreography, Hope Clarke. With Reathel Bean, Adriane Lenox, Alice Playten, Larry Keith, Marcus Carl Franklin, Kevin Ricardo Tate. Approximately 2 hours 40 minutes. Through Feb. 1 at Joseph Papp Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., Manhattan. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.publictheater.org.