It’s entirely possible that you’ve already read and heard more about the unimpeachable greatness of Pulitzer-and-everything-else-winning playwright Tony Kushner than you care to in this lifetime. Which is a shame, because the Guthrie Theater’s three-month celebration of Kushner’s work just got started with the opening of Caroline, Or Change over the weekend—and when it comes to Kushner, the work is really where it’s at. If you don’t want to read any further, I’ll just add that Caroline, Or Change is as marvelous, enchanting, and soul-stirring a show as you’re ever going to see, and if you choose to forego the chance to experience the Guthrie’s absolutely spectacular production of it, you will be missing the opportunity of a lifetime.
You can read Kushner’s plays and essays and hear him speak, but until you’ve seen the plays people are talking about, it’s difficult to understand what all the fuss is about. I speak with some authority on this subject because I’ve seen Angels in America a couple of times, written a 4,000-word article on Kushner for Mpls./St.Paul magazine, read everything Kushner has ever published, and have had several conversations with the man himself. But even after all that, I was unprepared for the energetic tour de force that is Caroline.
After all, this is not a show you can see by renting the DVD or downloading a bootleg. You can buy the soundtrack, and there are a few brief clips of songs on YouTube from lesser productions, but that’s it. The only way to see a full-length recording of Caroline, Or Change is to personally visit the New York Public Library, check it out, and watch it on the premises. Otherwise, you have to see it live. There is no other way.
But that’s okay, because in many respects the genius behind Caroline, Or Change only exists as a live experience. The story line revolves around Caroline Thibodeaux, a maid in Lake Charles, Louisiana who spends her days washing clothes and shooing away Noah, the nine-year-old boy of the Jewish family for whom she works. The time is 1963, around the time John F. Kennedy is assassinated and the civil-rights movement is picking up steam. But the show itself is all about the music, and music’s power to tap into the emotional vein of a story in a way that’s inaccessible through any other dramatic form. In Caroline’s world, the washing machine and dryer sing the blues, the radio is played by three Supremes-like gals in shimmering pink dresses, and even the moon belts out a few lunar showstoppers. These objects are an important part of Caroline’s life, so they come to life in the play.
Caroline, Or Change has been called a folk opera, but that term makes it sound like it’s something that would take place in a coffee shop with a tip jar for the performers. What Caroline really is, though, is a rollicking pop-blues opera/musical for regular folks who cringe at the words “opera” and “musical.” It’s far too much fun to be loaded down by the weight of the word opera, and way too sophisticated and nuanced to be dismissed as a mere musical. What’s operatic about it is the play’s scope and ambition, and what’s musical about it is everything else. There aren’t more than five lines of regular dialogue in the whole thing; the rest is pure musical artistry.
Credit for the score goes to Broadway veteran Jeanine Tesori, but where music is concerned, execution is half the battle, and it’s a battle the Guthrie’s production team, led by director Marcela Lorca, is easily winning. For starters, the Guthrie has assembled a smoking-hot band anchored by local drum wizard Kevin Washington. On top of that, the cast has the most amazing set of pipes ever assembled on the Guthrie stage. Greta Oglesby is brilliant as Caroline, Nikkie Renee Daniels is scorchingly spectacular as her rebellious teenage daughter, and T. Mychael Rambo almost steals the show with two small parts at The Dryer and The Bus (yes, the bus sings too).
Most Broadway musicals are by-the-number affairs with a book of songs that, when performed, give the audience idiotic cues about when they should clap. One of the many things that’s great about Caroline, Or Change is that is eschews this cheap device in favor of telling the story organically through the songs. That’s the way opera works, but in this case, the songs themselves are bluesy, rock-and-roll-tinged masterpieces that serve as cultural anchors for the characters (the Jewish Gellmans play klezmer music in their house) and simultaneously drive the story forward.
There are several kinds of genius behind all of this, and only one of them is Kushner’s. The Guthrie’s production on the Wurtele Thrust Stage is the first time the play has ever been performed in the round, but it looks like it was made for the Wurtele stage—which is a tribute to the entire Guthrie production team, from set designer Richard Hoover on down.
I could write more—plenty more—but there’s no way for mere words (even mine) to do this production justice. You have to see it to appreciate it. I know the economy sucks and money is tight, but now is the time to empty that change jar and get over to the Guthrie for this show. There are plenty of tickets left—heck, on Saturday night, the theater was only 80 percent full. And that’s a shame, because this is a show everyone ought to see—if for no other reason than to understand what all the fuss over Kushner is about, and why you’re going to be hearing more about him in the next two months than anyone can reasonably stand. So you might as well enjoy it—and be part of the conversation.
Caroline, Or Change continues at the Guthrie Theater through June 21, guthrietheater.org. Photo credit: Michal Daniel