Powerful voices, strong performances in ‘Caroline’
By Eric McCrea
In honor of Black History Month, The Youngstown Playhouse staged a modern, innovative musical with a backdrop of the civil-rights movement.
The Tony nominated “Caroline, or Change” by Tony Kushner, with music by Jeanine Tesori, brilliantly infuses gospel, blues, Motown and traditional Jewish folk music into a story about the intersection of two families dealing with change.
Caroline Thibodeaux, played by Sonya M. Gordon, is a single mother of four, working as the maid for the Gellman family for $30 a week in their Louisiana town. In the basement laundry room, she works alongside appliances, personified by actors.
Young Noah Gellman (Caleb Bordonaro) seeks Caroline’s confidence as he deals with the recent death of his mother, while distancing himself from his new stepmother, Rose (Jessica Hirsh.)
Rose tells Caroline that she can keep any change she finds in Noah’s pockets, hoping to teach the boy a lesson in responsibility. Caroline scowls at the idea, as she does most things in life, but agrees for the sake of her family.
Noah begins purposefully leaving increasing amounts of his allowance for Caroline to find, but accidentally leaves a $20 bill gifted to him by his grandfather. Trying to get it back causes Noah and Caroline to exchange regrettably harsh words.
The Playhouse took a chance with this impactful and challenging show.
Director Dr. C. Austin Hill found strong leads with powerful voices who could also handle the introspective drama. Musical director Matthew White led an amazing 10-person orchestra from the piano in this almost entirely sung production with a rich score.
Gordon was flawless in the vocally demanding lead role. To describe her voice as strong would be a huge understatement. Her delivery of “Lot’s Wife” was nearly show-stopping. Caroline describes herself as mean, and Gordon’s face portrays that ceaselessly.
Having a capable young actor to play the major role Noah is integral to the success of “Caroline” and Bordonaro was phenomenal. The sixth-grader performed like a professional alongside some extremely capable adults, spending much stage time with Gordon.
Hirsh, who also served as assistant director and choreographer, was sharp and precise under the lights. She was light and upbeat, sometimes delving into a touching show of vulnerability. Hirsh takes every step deliberately, enveloped in a completely realized Rose.
Mikayla Moore made a strong showing as Caroline’s teenage daughter Emmie. She did outstanding jobs with fun songs like “Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw” and deep songs like the epilogue.
Jacinda Madison was a welcome addition as Caroline’s friend Dotty. She makes singing look easy and adds lots of personality to the show with her duet “Dotty and Caroline.”
The incomparable Darlene Griffin sparkled as The Washing Machine with a smooth and comforting hum, but she struggled as The Moon, with some higher parts that seemed just out of reach on the show’s second night. Similarly, James Major Burns was great in the functional role of The Bus, but as one-third of The Radio, he overpowered the younger members of the trio.
The talented cast was rounded out with impressive performances from James McClellan as Noah’s despondent father, Stuart, and Trevail Maurice as Caroline’s nemesis The Dryer.
“Caroline, or Change” will run Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. For reservations call 330-788-8739 or go to theyoungstownplayhouse.com.