Caroline or Change

I am breaking a bit with my own self-imposed rule on this blog. I never meant for this to be a review site, I go and see plays and then come here and tell you about them. In the end, I assume that the decision about whether or not you want to go is up to you. I’ve decided that I’m going to try to do more than that today.

If you have any level of investment in New York Theater, established or independent, you need to go to the Gallery Players production of Caroline or Change. Please go, you will be glad you did, and you will kick yourself if you miss it.

Pictured (l to r): Daniel Henri Luttway and Teisha Duncan in The Gallery Players’ production of Caroline, or Change. Photo by Bella Muccari.

Broadway shows fill a need that’s different than the one independent theater serves. Our job is more like church. What we want, when we walk into a theater, is to be transported and transformed. We want a revelation, and we want to know that something is happening right here, in the same room, that we are both witness to and participant in. That is why, in the past, I’ve always been frustrated when independent theaters try to produce (or worse, re-produce) what has just been on the stage on Broadway, so I walked in to this show with a little bit of low level trepidation. What was given to me was, put simply, the very best that Broadway has to offer, married to the very best of independent theater. It was an astonishing performance, reinvigorating and inspiring, a reminder that we may all be looking for the same thing.

Because of the nature of this story, the entire production is on the shoulders of the talent on stage, so I have to start with them, rather than a discussion of the ideas in the play.

Daniel Henri Luttway plays the young boy Noah, and his awkward adolescent physicalization is married to a perfect sure-footed musicality. At first, I was nervous that the score would be too hard for such a young performer but, of course, I totally forgot once he negotiated some of the more angular and elegant vocal lines. His counter-part in the other family, Elyse McKay Taylor as Emmie, is really fantastic. It was hard for me to get a handle on exactly how young the daughter is supposed to be, the actress could easily pass for anything from 17 to 25, but her ability to handle the role erased the question. If Caroline is the soul of the play, Emmie is the heart, and in the role, Ms. Taylor is just the epitome of beauty.

Frank Viveros, who plays the dryer and bus driver (yes, he plays the dryer) is astonishing. I don’t normally try to justify my opinion with background, but my father is a symphony conductor, my mother is a composer, we grew up with Vince Guaraldi sleeping on our couch and Beverly Sills eating enchiladas in our dining room. I worked for twenty years as a music producer, I’ve recorded something in the neighborhood of a thousand different singers and, in my career as a theater producer, I’ve seen countless hundreds of productions. Mr. Viveros is among the top five voices I’ve ever been in the same room with. I can’t over-hype him enough.

Pictured (l to r): Marcie Henderon and Teisha Duncan in The Gallery Playersí production of Caroline, or Change. Photo by Bella Muccari.

The real miracle, though, is Teisha Duncan. Obviously, everything I write here is filtered through my own life experience, but at the beginning of the evening, after she started ripping through the title character, I thought, “oh no… she’s not gonna make it.” I’ve got a musical theater resume a mile long, and I know when someone is blowing their wad too early. By the time the second act began, it began to dawn on me that her talent wasn’t that of a wayward theater gypsy, that I was in the presence of something really singular. And then, she has a piece of music that leads to the end of the play, a sort of Gethsemene moment, and only minutes in to it did I realize that I was sitting there, mouth agape, hands over my eyebrows, in the presence of greatness. The explosion from the rest of the audience when her number ended was so authentic, so communal, that it reminded me what theater is meant to be.

Now, it’s not a perfect production. I felt like they did the best they could with the role of the grandfather, and the younger kids are both serviceable. With theater on this level, it’s tough to find age appropriate actors over fifty and under 20, and the fact that they did as well as they did is pretty spectacular. The pit band was also at times wonderful, but the strings, in particular, were just awful on occasion, and with music like this, sour notes on the violin could have been deadly, had they not been so well-ignored by the talented cast.

But the majority of the production is a wonder. Supported by a simple, elegant and articulate set, with a faded twenty dollar bill filling the lower playing space and three levels of homes and porches all suggested with steps and frames, the direction is phenomenal. The show spins by, for all its suggested languidity and there isn’t a wasted moment or piece of set. This is a show where the moon has a role, and sings a duet with a washing machine at the end of the second act, and the director has taken this Tom Robbins-esque absurdity and made it a David Eggers work of staggering heartbreak.

The play itself… I came home and started sending emails. Look, if you’re reading my blog, then chances are, you’re like me. You like to go see theater, but the $85-$145 tickets on Broadway are a once-every-four-years kind of thing. And even then, you’ve TKTS’ed it, or you’re standing in the back. And you don’t care, because you’d rather go see something insane at The Brick or Here Arts Center than to go see Mamma Mia or Shrek.

And so a lot of my friends have given up on the musical as an art form. What can a musical even do? This is the answer. The plot for this piece is simple. A Jewish family moves to Louisiana after the wife dies and the husband re-marries her best friend. Their son, Noah, misses his mother, hates his step-mother (despite her best intentions) and has found an unwilling soul-mate in their maid, Caroline. In an effort to teach her son to value his money, and without realizing how deeply insulting it is, the step-mother tells Caroline to keep whatever change Noah leaves in his pockets when she does the wash. Caroline has four children of her own, and the small change in this boy’s pockets can actually change her life.

That’s really it. I dare you to write a play about that and make it interesting. You can’t, because not enough happens. That is why musicals are so important. And the fact that this musical makes the argument for the entire art-form is why it’s so important, and why, no matter who you are, you should see it.

If you think that modern musicals are all sung-through Sondheim rip-offs with no tunes, come see this show. If you think musicals are all plot-then-song, plot-then-song, plot-then-song, then come see this show. If you think that there are no productions worth seeing for $18, this show will change your entire worldview. If you think there is no talent outside of Actor’s Equit
y Association, PLEASE come and see Teisha Duncan. If you think Tony Kushner needs to be done in a million dollar production to work… my God, you need to see this show. No one flies, no one delivers biblical verse, nobody even talk about Jesus… but toward the end of the show, Caroline says to Noah, “that sadness you have inside you? I have it too, and it never goes away”, and it is somehow one of the most hopeful and uplifting things that I’ve witnessed in a year of shows.

I’ve said we shouldn’t compare ourselves to Broadway. Well, maybe we should. Maybe we can do it better, for less money, and have the stories mean more. Maybe we’re better than them *at their own game*. They probably had a great string section in the Broadway production, but would that be enough to charge seven times the ticket price? I wanted to compare us to church, but maybe it isn’t necessary. Caroline, in the second act, says she needs to go to church, but then she stands in her front yard and tells us a story. Maybe we don’t need the church, what we need is the story.

I know that’s true for me, and if you’re wondering if it’s true for you, you should see this show.