At the heart-piercing climax of “Caroline, or Change,” Caroline — the boilingly resentful maid in the home of a Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana — confesses her anguish in a harrowing aria, a song so combustible it seems capable of setting the whole theater ablaze.
“Strangle my soul, turn me to salt, a pillar of salt,” Caroline sings. “Set me free. Don’t let my sorrow make evil of me.”
It’s the illustrious Nova Y. Payton who, in Round House Theatre’s vibrant revival, portrays Caroline — a role tailor-made for a golden-throated powerhouse. Wearing a starched white uniform and a permanent scowl, her Caroline is a storm cloud of pain; you wait with both alarm and excitement for the thunder to rumble and the lightning to strike. For if any musical actress in town can roust meteorological forces — did you catch Payton as Effie in Signature Theatre’s “Dreamgirls”? — this natural wonder can.
And she does, incandescently, in director Matthew Gardiner’s illuminating version of the 2003 bluesy pop opera, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and a score packed with tempestuous, ear-pleasing riches by Jeanine Tesori. Payton, thankfully, isn’t a stand-alone success in the cast, 17 strong, backed by a 10-member orchestra conducted by wizardly Jon Kalbfleisch. Gardiner, whom Round House imported from Signature, where he is associate artistic director, has assembled a formidable array of talent, particularly in the casting of the sensational Awa Sal Secka and Korinn Walfall as Caroline’s friend Dotty and daughter Emmie.
These women set exacting standards — vocally, especially — in a show with wrenching themes and challenging melodies; the evening is 95 percent music. Inevitably, with such potent artillery there will be weaker links and other voices more punishingly tested by the score’s demands. A few allowances have to be made, for experience and technique, but not by any means in ways that seriously hinder the overall effect.
That would be that “Caroline, or Change,” while always fairly positively received, may be better than even its past notices indicate. Perhaps in the 14 years since it was unveiled at off-Broadway’s Public Theater (and, later, in a transfer to Broadway), musical theater itself has become more hospitable to the show’s innovations: its fluid storytelling style, its interweaving of family and national politics, its saturated emotionality.
Set in Kushner’s home town of Lake Charles, La., “Caroline, or Change” explores at ground level the civil rights movement, with a portrait of the cold realities for a single black mother, with four children and an achingly dull, menial job. “Goes underground” might be an even better description, because Caroline’s world is that rarity in Louisiana’s waterlogged earth, a basement, where even the Washing Machine (Theresa Cunningham), the Dryer (V. Savoy McIlwain) and the Radio (Felicia Curry, Olivia Russell, Kara-Tameika Watkins) vibrate with more melodic joie de vivre than she.
Caroline is the member of a disadvantaged minority working for another with a legacy of oppression: Her employers, the Gellmans (Will Gartshore and Dorea Schmidt), are Jewish, and what’s more, they’re themselves isolated and unhappy. Schmidt’s beautifully sung Rose is Stuart Gellman’s second wife and, to her own frustration, neither he nor his son Noah (Griffin McCahill) is over the first wife’s death.
The linchpin relationship of “Caroline, or Change” is the brittle tug-of-war between Caroline and Noah, and here’s a facet of the production that feels underdeveloped. As a maternal substitute, Noah chooses not Rose but Caroline, a role for which the embittered, overextended maid simply has no energy, or interest. One of the demonstrations of the musical’s integrity is its marvelously dry-eyed view of Caroline’s rejection of Noah. On this occasion, though, the audience requires a more potent manifestation of this dynamic because the crucial scene in which Noah lashes out at Caroline and she gives it right back to him lacks the devastating sense of transgression it must supply.
Set designer Jason Sherwood impressively places the Gellmans’ multistory frame home on a turntable that Gardiner uses deftly to reveal the essential coldness of the household; there are places for all of the Gellmans, especially the dependable Gartshore’s introverted Stuart, to seal themselves away. But the nuclear family more urgently tugging on Caroline’s apron and heart strings — her children and friends — is the one that on this occasion engrosses an audience most satisfyingly.
Secka is effortlessly appealing as Dotty, the friend who treads lightly around Caroline and her many griefs. Walfall, too, is a find as the oldest of Caroline’s children, and a young woman awakening to possibilities her mother can’t even conceive of; though there are other, more ironic interpretations for the show’s title, Walfall’s Emmie most ecstatically embodies the “change” of “Caroline, or Change.” In supporting roles, McIlwain, Scott Sedar and Delores King Williams make strong vocal contributions.
Best of all is Payton as a maid tragically marooned by circumstance — but still capable of serving up both fire and ice.
Caroline, or Change, music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Tony Kushner. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Musical director, Jon Kalbfleisch; set, Jason Sherwood; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Grant Wilcoxen; sound, Fitz Patton; production stage manager, Che Wernsman. With John Lescault, Naomi Jacobson, Elijah Mayo, Micah Tate. About 2½ hours. Tickets: $38.50 to $90. Through Feb. 26 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Visit roundhousetheatre.org or call 240-644-1100.