Upon entering the Aurora Fox Arts Center, a mood is set as the silhouette of a living room surrounded by draped Louisiana bald cypress trees glow from an eerie, backlit moonlight. It’s almost as if the air thickens with humidity as the audience saunters to their seats, taking in the pace of the Deep South.
Caroline, or Change has a month-long residency, from April 5 to May 5 in the beautiful theatre located in the Aurora Cultural Arts District. The production is quite the undertaking for the quaint space, as it is complex and intricate. From songbook, to character development, to the thematically divisive content itself, this is unlike any other musical on the market and the audience is in for a sweet and salty surprise.
“I saw the show in New York in 2003, and it just never left me. It became one of my favorite musicals,” said Kenny Moten, director and co-choreographer of the debut Colorado production. “It’s about the human condition of change, so there’s so much to mine there. It just was one of those pieces of theatre that stays with you, so I really wanted to take on directing it.”
Set in the basement of a Louisiana Jewish family’s home in 1963, the audience is introduced to a washing machine, a dryer, a radio, and Caroline Thibodeaux, the 39-year-old African-American maid to the family who lives upstairs. Caroline has been cleaning houses for 22 years, is a single mother of four, and is adored by the young, white boy in the house, Noah Gellman.
The 2003 operetta of Southern soul hit Broadway for a short run and was met with critical acclaim and nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The deep cuts are relentless and unforgiving, as the music is charismatically complex and beautifully woven with emotion that draws a fierce attention to the stage. As the orchestration combines influences of blues, Motown, classical music, and Jewish tunes, originally scored by Jeanine Tesori, the lyrics and book by Tony Kushner tell a story as relevant to the times as it was during the era in which it is set.
“I kept talking about magical realism,” Moten said. “I wanted to make this whole world feel somewhat magical, but be rooted in the reality which is this everyday story. [It] is somehow bigger than these people, also.”
While there was a clear vision of an emotional response that Moten wanted to impress, he said that it was during the rehearsal process when things things came to life in the magical realism alternate reality.
“All of the actors certainly started to make some choices that made the magical pieces when Caroline is alone even more magical. They had this kind of whimsy to them, but then we would fall back into those moments that felt so real and mundane. Once Brett Maughan, the lighting director, came in, he got that immediately, and it’s just so beautiful to watch.”
Beautiful it is, and everything works in congruity to turn the small stage into a space where racial themes are explored fearlessly through the characters who are fully formed, messy, and complete humans.
“I kind of try to relate myself to any character that I play,” said Mary Louise Lee. “I feel I’m kind of like a method actor.”
Lee plays Caroline, and is an Aurora Fox and Colorado theatre star. She said that while she knows how to wash, dry, and iron clothes, playing the role of the maid in this production is so much more than just that.
“Caroline has a lot of deep issues going on. And so, maybe I cannot relate directly to different things that she went through, but we all have situations where we have dealt with some racism, some situations where we don’t feel good enough, or we can’t do enough. I really kind of dug deep into her character.”
The connection between Lee and Caroline isn’t very close at all, in fact, when one compares the stark difference between the person and the character. Caroline is an angry woman who carries the burden of her troubled past through an era that deems her unworthy of much more than the pennies she is paid weekly for her wages, yet Lee can transform into the woman whose story needs to be told.
“I do think to one of the things that Mary really brings to the role is that the audience empathizes with her,” said Moten. “Mary has made her very human, these moments where you see her let her guard down and you see this person that she probably was before she might have been so angry.
“That adds a dimension to this production that I wasn’t expecting, but that makes it feel like the audience wants to root for Caroline. It just makes her more human and more identifiable to all of us.”
The entire cast is powerful and diverse, exploring the relationships of tension and reverence, truly rounding out the journey through the era of unrest. The trio of women who serve as the radio expertly reach heights of Supreme-like realness while a duality of characters portray the washer, played by Rajdulari, and drying machine, played by Leonard Barrett, Jr. By far a standout performance, the duo turned up the heat in the small and sticky basement.
“I think you have to learn kind of a new language as you watch the show,” Moten said. “The biggest challenge was to make it accessible to everybody, to any audience member; this isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. I think that was the hard part about looking at the big picture. Even if you didn’t expect the washing machine to sing, by the time you leave here will you be haunted by that; it will be something that you think about.”
Haunting is a certainty; no one will walk away from seeing this show the same as when they first arrived. Though this show was originally released in the early 2000s, the parallels of the South in the 1960s feel far too familiar to current times.
“I keep saying, it feels more timely now than it was even in 2003,” said Moten. “I mean, just the themes about about race and and religion, one of the characters is talking about removing a confederate statue, and so many of those topics are still at the forefront of the news cycle. It’s a reminder that if we’re talking about change, how do we continue to move forward and how much have we?
“We are all averse to change, but change comes fast, and change comes slow. So, you think about how far we’ve come since 1963, but how far is that? There’s still farther to go.”
As Caroline is ushered through an era of change, as we all are at times in our lives, this production is a heartbreaking and beautiful full circle of the human condition. From the music and band, to the costumes and set design, through the lighting illusion of magical realism to the massive talent of the actors and singers, this entire production screams expert theatre. It’s a severe understatement to list this show as a local community theatre production. Colorado has a glimpse of Broadway nestled inside artful Aurora.
Photos courtesy of Aurora Fox Arts Center