Theater Preview: CAROLINE, OR CHANGE (Ray of Light at Victoria Theatre in San Francisco)

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by Tony Frankel on September 12, 2019

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


We hear that that the only thing constant is change, yet we struggle against change, we fight against change, and some are even willing to succumb to the unyielding stress of determined apathy rather than change. We live in a world that must change the way it consumes and change the way it looks at money. Some of the world is so desperate to change that revolutions are begun against established regimes without a new government to put in its place. Change comes fast. Change comes slow. But change comes.

For Caroline, a divorced Louisiana maid who works in a hot basement, change is in the air. With three kids to feed in 1963, including a rebellious daughter, it is not this African-American maid’s hardscrabble existence that is eating away at her, but her defiant pride — a pride which threatens to consume her heart with a suffocating grip.

I strongly, strongly urge you to see Ray of Light’s thrilling production of Caroline, or Change, which opens this week and plays through October 5 at the Victoria Theatre, the oldest operating theater in San Francisco. There, you will experience two of the most breathtaking and exhilarating moments ever seen in a Broadway musical, one which mourns the death of a President and one which mourns the death of a way of being, both stemming from the acceptance that change is upon us.

Set in Lake Charles, La. in 1963, the musical is about the charged relationship between an African-American maid and a Jewish boy at a time of turmoil in America. It takes place against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the assassination of President Kennedy.

A caveat for those who hear “Broadway Musical,” (and this is one of America’s best new musicals in decades). Inspired by his own childhood, the perfectly rhymed lyrics and timeless, funny, heartbreaking book are by Tony Kushner (Angels in America). But don’t expect any breakout numbers in the sung-through score by Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home); in fact, rare are the moments when the audience is even given a chance to applaud. The melodies are character-driven and come and go to fit the scene, with strains of Motown, hard-driving gospel, and klezmer, a welcome change from songs being incongruously inserted where they don’t belong.

Caroline certainly received praise enough from critics and audience alike, yet it originally had a short life on Broadway. The musical, originally directed by George C. Wolfe, began Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2003 and had a 20-week run on Broadway the following year. It fared better in London, where it won the Olivier Award for best new musical in 2007. (It returns to Broadway at Studio 54 next April, 2020.)

It’s difficult to encourage people to see a show where some of the characters are a washer, a dryer, a radio, a bus and the moon, but they are necessary as a Greek chorus which articulates the calamities in Caroline’s universe. As such, this is a musical which may not be produced often, but when it’s done, run to it. Ray of Light is known for doing incredibly brave work anyway; their Assassins was the best I’ve ever seen).

Any devotee of the American musical theatre simply must see this production. Not only will you witness the transformation of musical theatre as we know it (just as Hamilton did), but this poetic journey so brilliantly captures the upheaval of the 1960s that you will return home inspired, reflective and — dare I say it? — changed.

photos by Nick Otto

Caroline, or Change
Ray of Light Theatre
Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street (between Mission and Capp)
ends on October 5, 2019
for tickets, visit ROLT

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Thomas Koester September 17, 2019 at 11:05 am

I admire that Ray Of Light is producing this excellent musical. Change is still so needed in America. Thank you !


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