Caroline, or Change

CarolineOriginal Broadway Cast, 2004 (Hollywood Records, 2CDs) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) Tony Kushner writing the book and lyrics for a musical full of inanimate objects? If you did not see Caroline, or Change onstage, you may have difficulty getting past the novelty of a singing washing machine, dryer, radio, bus, and moon — but once you do, this show is revealed to be an attractive and often emotionally explosive folk opera. Jeanine Tesori supplies intriguing and highly listenable music, heavily steeped in the styles of the show’s 1963 setting, for this tale about the relationship between a black woman named Caroline Thibodeaux and the southern Jewish family that employs her as a maid. Tonya Pinkins gives an earth-shaking, all-encompassing performance as Caroline, making the emotionally and musically difficult score sound easy and reaching stratospheric heights in her monumental, five-minute-long, 11-o’clock number “Lot’s Wife.” She receives solid support from such Broadway notables as Veanne Cox, Chuck Cooper, and Alice Playten, while Tony Award-winner Anika Noni Rose is impressive as Caroline’s daughter. Although many of the individual songs are striking in their own right — including the youthfully catchy first-act finale “Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw” and “The Chanukah Party,” with its already immortal lyric “Chanukah, oh Chanukah / Oh Dreydl and Menorah! / We celebrate it even though / It isn’t in the Torah!” — this recording is best experienced straight through from beginning to end. — Matthew Murray

Broadway Cast, 2022 (Broadway Records, 2CDs) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) Caroline, or Change was not properly appreciated when it premiered on Broadway in 2004, as its complex and uncompromising presentation of race relations proved a hard sell for many audiences and critics. In the years since, the musical’s themes have only grown more relevant, and the quality of the material has finally been recognized by its winning the Best Musical Olivier Award for the London premiere production (a transfer from Broadway) and then, years later, via a much-lauded London revival that eventually was brought to Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company. That production yielded this new cast recording, and since the revival made many critics change their tune about this near-opera and give it the high praise it always deserved, you’d think that the cast recording would rival or even surpass the original. But while the singing here is stronger overall (Caissie Levy, in particular, is wildly overqualified vocally for the role of Rose Stopnick), there’s a controlled, studied quality to the proceedings that keeps the album from greatness. While director Michael Longhurst’s production included more elaborate staging than George C. Wolfe’s original, and featured some odd design choices, the recording shows that this revival was extremely faithful to the material as written and performed in 2004, even using the same flawless orchestrations. Joseph Joubert, a co-orchestrator on the original, is on hand as music director, conducting the score crisply but with little fire. Sharon D. Clarke, the lone British performer who transferred with the production, is perhaps more in command of her voice than Pinkins, but her Caroline seems more calculatedly mean; whereas the character’s unpleasantness in Pinkins’ performance seemed to stem from pain and exhaustion, Clarke’s Caroline often sounds like a brooding shark, lying in wait to snap at anyone who crosses her path. It’s an interesting interpretation of the role, though arguably less engaging. On the other hand, Tamika Lawrence proves to be a scene stealer as Dotty, and Harper Miles, Nya, and Nasia Thomas tear into the collective role of The Radio with vocal ferocity. For a work as richly rewarding as Caroline, any new interpretation is welcome; so if this recording doesn’t surpass the original, it’s well-enough done to stand alongside it as a point of comparison and an opportunity to explore more facets to this masterwork. — Matt Koplik