Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Caroline or Change – It’s not “The Help”, the Musical

From the name of the play to the poster image of Sharon D Clark singing her heart out, I came into the play blind, assuming it would be a message of 1963 empowerment. And it is about empowerment and race relations, but the type that is found internally, not externally.

Caroline is played by Sharon D Clark and is fantastic. Caroline is a maid in Louisiana in 1963. Her relationship with the white, Jewish family she works for is brittle and borderline antagonistic. She does have a soft spot, will hidden, for the son – Noah. I saw Jaden Myles Waldman in the role, one of three boys sharing the role, he was excellent as well.

Caroline with the Radio's chorus and the Washing Machine's bubbles,

Noah’s mother has passed and his father has married a long time family friend, Rose. Noah doesn’t feel close his step-mother, because he still mourning his mother.

Caroline, and her basement domain, are a rock of stability in his life. As for Caroline, the basement is her domain to let her self, even just a bit. In the basement the washing machine, radio and dryer come to life and sing to her. The voices are fun and fresh (and sexy when dryer Kevin S. McAllister enters the song). It’s here that she finally allows herself a short mental diversion from her life.

But real life happens on leaving that small world. She is short with her friends, like Dotty. In a post-work discussion, while waiting for the bus, Caroline turns angry at friend Dotty Moffett (Tamika Lawrence) who is going back to school, dressing white and generally trying to improve her station in this environment. Angry because she isn’t going anywhere soon. She is angry towards her children, not for anything she does, but as a reminder of what she cannot deliver.

Caroline is stuck. She is stuck working for the Gellmans, underpaid and removed from the family. She has to use here few funds at home to take care of the family. She is stuck alone with a missing husband she adored and takes care of her three children without quite enough money to afford any extras for her or her children.

At work, Caroline empties the pockets of the family’s clothes before washing them, and turns the money over to Rose each day. Rose needs to increase Caroline’s salary without her husband’s knowledge and to teach Noah the value of money. So she asks Caroline to keep the change she finds, and this way teach a lesson to Noah. Noah, hearing this conversation, leaves money in his pocket for Caroline, who refuses to take it originally. She changes her mind when her children need money for treats or medical help.

Noah and Caroline (Sharon D Clarke) in the Basement

Around the country the world is changing. John Kennedy’s death occurs but the Black characters wonder what will happen with JFK’s promise to help them, assuming the worst.

At the Hannukah Dinner, Noah’s grandfather, Chip Zien, preaches the Socialist revolution in comments to Caroline. He sees this moment in history as a possible turning point for both Blacks and Jews. But Caroline sees these as just a further promise that she knows isn’t true. But the dinner scene illustrates another truth. Caroline, her friend and daughter serve the family. It is a reality that doesn’t seem to occur to the grandfather. It plays on the dynamics of the Jewish and Black struggle for respect.

The title then refers to the internal struggle Caroline sees as the line between work and charity. She has created a safe space for work. The loose change signifies her struggle between taking care of her family on this low salary or taking a little extra by taking change from a child of the family she works for.

But the power dynamic between her and the child Noah is altered by leaving change for her. Noah doesn’t understand the problem and Caroline’s emotional distance. The whole she leaves in his world is hard for him, but he will outgrow it. The world for Caroline is hard, even with the change and she knows she will not outgrow it.

The contrast and power of the Jewish family versus Caroline and her friends shows itself in the lecture that Chip Zein delivers to Caroline. He never asks question, only delivers the truth as he sees it.

As for Noah, has a step-mother whom he doesn’t like and a father who literally cannot communicate. Dad plays the clarinet constantly – making music was something he and Noah’s mother did while she was alive. This devotion to music and lack of devotion to his family is felt by his new wife, and by Noah.

Caroline or Change isn’t a straightforward story. Caroline doesn’t change into a warm hearted surrogate mother. The distance the father puts between himself and the family is similar to the distance Caroline puts between herself and the Gellmans.

Directed by Michael Longhurst, Caroline or Change is shot full of fantastical imagery and moments consistent with Tony Kusher’s vision. A vision that is both literal and allegorical at the came time.

Caroline or Change
Directed by Michael Longhurst |Story by Tony Kusher |Lyrics by Tony Kusher and Music by Jeanine Tesori | Cast: Sharon D Clarke, Cassie Levy, John Cariana, Tamika Lawrence, Chip Zien

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Snow White Approaches in A Venomous Color: The Fairest

The new play at The Wild Project, A Venomous Color: The Fairest, has a simple premise that unfolds in layers. The framework is a workplace from Disney Studios - long before it became famous for animated movies. The play is set in the workshop where the cel illustration for Snow White the movie is done. This workplace provides the added pressure because they are working to complete the first full length animated feature. This was a period of sex segregation, and it is women who outline and paint the cels that are designed by men. The show provides a mirror to many of the problems and expectations in the workforce today, augmented by a disdainful attitude towards women.

Sivan Gordon-Buxbaum in A Venomous Color: The Fairest

The workplace is very much a product of the late 1930s, high pressure, cramped quarters and no air conditioning, along with the attendant attitudes towards both workers and women. These women diligently at painting and outlining the cells, with little recognition of their contributions. Four of actors in A Venomous Color embody the stereotypes of the times. 

Helen is a non-nonsense gal who does not like endless chatter while painting (Emma DeCorsey). Betty Ann is a friendly and comfortable background worker (Taylor Cozort). Grace has a terrible boyfriend she let back into her heart over and over (Sara Ruth Brown, in a great turn). And Frances, is the quiet and talented one with a hidden reservoir of emotion that will boil over later (an excellent Sivan Gordon-Buxbaum).

The entire cast of A Venomous Color was excellent. They do those things we all to at work sometimes: gossip, laugh, and occasionally grow frustrated. The fa├žade of the 1930s never slip, and this sense of time and place built trust with the audience.

Two other women float in and out. Hazel a female boss that is Walt Disney’s sister-in-law (Meghan E. Jones). She pops in to deliver news and exhortations to work quicker to deliver the movie. Ms. Jones was fantastic portraying the difficult role of boss, mentor, and den-mother. A position made more difficult by her unusual relation to Walt Disney.

Margie is played by Winnifred Bonjean-Alpart Margie the movement model for Snow White herself. As an artist, not a mere illustrator, she has style and grace as well as a sense of superiority. It is Margie / Snow White that is the catalyst for the changes in Frances. As she works on the character more and more, Frances begins to imagine Snow White berating her.

The dichogamy between the Snow White that Frances creates by painting, and the Snow White that taunts her daydreams grows from a distraction, to disagreements and then into an internal tug of war. Frances takes her a job to extremes as she places more and more pressure on herself. It is fascinating to watch Frances break down as “ discussions” with the Snow White drift into taunting and an adversarial relationship

The similarities with our work lives is clear. We understand that the emotions and conflicts of this work place from 90 years ago are consistent with our own era. Burnout, unresolved mental breakdowns, workers as drones and personal relationships, these consistently take a back seat to work. Frances, who has invested so much of herself worth into work, suffers the most. A previous emotional trauma occurred that she cannot face forced her to leave the familiarity of home. Her “discussions” with Snow White leave her more and more brittle.

A Venomous Color: The Fairest isn’t an indictment of Walt Disney or the studio, per say, but it functions as a safe place to air out our current angst. Written and directed by Cameron Darwin Bossert, the play moves at a brisk pace. The intermission less show feeds our own anxiety of finishing on time. The ensemble is excellent, ensuring that this is a provocative and thoughtful piece.

A Venomous Color: The Fairest
Director and Playwright: Cameron Darwin Bossert | Cast: Sivan Gordon-Buxbaum, Winnifred Bonjean-Alpart, Sara Ruth Brown, Taylor Cozort, Meghan E. Jones, and Emma DeCorsey