‘Caroline, or Change’ opens at Playhouse

YOUNGSTOWN — “Caroline, or Change” proves to be a perfect showcase for the vocal skills of a deep, talented Youngstown Playhouse cast.

The show written by Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner almost entirely is sung, and his words are set to music by Jeanine Tesori, who went on to win a Tony Award for “Fun Home.”

Her music draws inspiration from its setting — Louisiana in the early 1960s — and the African-American and Jewish cultures of its characters. That means influences shift from gospel to klezmer, with a bit of blues and girl group harmonies as well.

Sonya M. Gordon’s church choir background is evident in Caroline, a maid for a Jewish family in the South. She doesn’t take any guff from anyone, but she’s also not looking to attract attention or fight the status quo. Her oldest child, Emmie (a magnificent Mikayla Moore), is more interested in bringing change to rural Louisiana.

Gordon’s voice soars with a power and purity whenever she’s given the opportunity.

Equally good is Jessica Hirsh as Rose, Caroline’s employer. She is the second wife of Stuart (James McClellan), a musician still in mourning and questioning his faith after his first wife’s death from cancer.

Rose’s stepson Noah (Caleb Bordonaro) is even more distant, having turned to Caroline as his substitute mother. To teach Noah to learn responsibility and the value of money, Rose encourages Caroline — a divorcee trying to raise three children on a meager salary — to keep the change he leaves in his pants pockets. It’s a decision that has ramifications that neither expected.

Hirsh sings beautifully but she also conveys how Rose feels like an outsider — in her marriage, in her house, in the South.

It’s difficult to single out individual performances in a strong cast. James Major Burns always is a joy to watch, whether he’s the bus that brings Caroline to work or joined by Diamond Ford and Kaliyah Long as the radio that’s always playing in the basement where Caroline does laundry. Kushner gives voice (and great songs) to several inanimate objects, from a nuturing washing machine sung by Darlene Griffin and the dryer played with devilish temptation by Trevail Maurice.

Director C. Austin Hill’s staging only emphasizes the vocal showcase quality of the production. The orchestra, led by music director Matthew White, performs on a bandstand at the rear of the stage, and a lit sign with the show’s title hangs above them as the audience enters the theater and during intermission (special thanks should go to the Monday Musical Club Fund of The Youngstown Foundation, which underwrote the cost of that 10-piece orchestra).

When none of the minimal set pieces are on stage, it looks more like the backdrop for a musical revue than a drama set in Louisiana.

Sometimes it felt like the narrative arc of the story got lost in the music and the style of presentation. Part of that is a result of the story. Musicals tend to be big, but “Caroline, or Change” is about subtle shifts. It’s a show where change comes slowly and in small increments, in nickels and dimes. A $20 bill can have a seismic impact.

Kushner may have a point. One plot thread involves the destruction of Confederate monuments. That a story set in the early 1960s and written in the early ’90s is dealing with an issue we’re still debating in the early 21st century indicates just how slow change can come.

On an unrelated not, it would be nice if the Playhouse enforced what it says in its program, that photography and cellphone use are prohibited. At Sunday’s matinee, I watched a women two row in front of me record nearly the entire performance, except when she stopped to post the videos to Facebook and then check to see who was liking and commenting on her posts. If I’d left any nickels or dimes in my pocket, I might have thrown them at her.