‘Caroline, or Change’ opens at Playhouse

Youngstown Playhouse is hoping audiences will take a chance on a musical that doesn’t have the name recognition of its biggest hits.

“Caroline, or Change” only had a short run on Broadway, but Playhouse Operations Manager James McClellan said it was a hit Off-Broadway.

“Producers go for the gold (on Broadway) and that’s when a smaller show with more challenging content tends to get lost,” McClellan said. “A stage our size is just right, and we’re hoping our audience will give it the kind of support it deserves.”

McClellan originally wanted to do the musical “The Color Purple” to coincide with Black History Month, but the show currently is on tour and unavailable to community theaters. That’s when he suggested “Caroline, Or Change.”

“My first exposure was listening to it from start to finish,” McClellan said. “The cast recording is the entire show, and I was just blown away on every level — the subject matter, the performances of it. I really think it’s one of the best musicals written this century.”

The show is set in 1963 in Lake Charles, La., and revolves around a Jewish family and their African-American maid. The drama inside the house coincides with the civil rights movement happening beyond its doors.

The book and lyrics were written by Tony Kushner, winner of the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for “Angels in America.” The music is by Jeanine Tesori, who went on to win the Tony Award for her score for “Fun Home.” She also wrote the music for the Broadway hit “Shrek the Musical.”

“She had the biggest job here,” McClellan said. “Tony Kushner wrote the entire show in verse — every single line rhymes — and she had to musicalize the entire script. She showed all her colors with this show.”

Tesori won a Drama Desk Award for her music. “Caroline, or Change” was nominated for six Tony Awards, including best musical, in 2004, but it closed after four months on Broadway.

C. Austin Hill directs the Playhouse production, and the cast includes Sonya M. Gordon, Caleb Bordonaro, Jessica Hirsh, Mikayla Moore, James Major Burns, Darlene Griffin, Jacinda Madison, Sam Perry, Trevail Maurice, Sylvia Ewen, Thomas Lee Ewen, Diamond Ford, Kaliyah Long and McClellan.

Matthew White is the musical director, and Hirsh is choreographer. Johnny Pecano, who also serves as technical director, and White designed the set with lighting design by Ellen Licitra. Allison Hill is costumer.

A live orchestra for all performances has been generously sponsored by The Monday Musical Club Fund of The Youngstown Foundation.