Theater / Film

As 21st century tensions rise, Actors’ Playhouse digs deep for ‘Caroline, or Change’

Written By Christine Dolen
March 25, 2024 at 6:21 PM

Kareema Khouri, left, and Franco Kiglies in the Actors’ Playhouse production of “Caroline, or Change” in previews Thursday, March 28 with opening Friday, March 29 and running through Sunday, April 14, at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables. (Photo courtesy of Alberto Romeu)

To enter Caroline’s realm, you walk down stairs that will take you to a place 16 feet below sea level, into a rare basement in the small town of Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Theatrical time travel is part of the experience, too, as you go back to 1963 and a country on the cusp of change.

Caroline Thibodeaux is a 39-year-old Black woman divorced from the man who loved, then abused her. To keep her kids fed and clothed, she toils as a maid for the Gellmans, a white Jewish family forever altered by sorrow over the loss of a wife and mother to cancer. For the labor that keeps her largely absent from her own family, Caroline scrapes to get by on poverty-level wages of $30 a week.  How – given racism, antisemitism, poverty, the ugly legacy of slavery – can lasting change and growth happen?

Kareema Khouri as Caroline gets a hug from Cassidy Joseph as her activist daughter Emmie in the Actors’ Playhouse production of “Caroline, or Change.”
(Photo courtesy of Alberto Romeu)

That’s the driving thematic force at the center of “Caroline, or Change,” which previews Thursday, March 28, then opens at 8 p.m. Friday, March 29, for a run through Sunday, April 14, at Actors’ Playhouse in the Miracle Theatre.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angels in America” playwright Tony Kushner with an eclectic and musically demanding score by Olivier Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori, the 2004 musical (which was revived on Broadway in 2021) is likely to prove the most challenging and thought-provoking show in the current Actors’ Playhouse season.

After starting with the first post-world premiere production of “Sweet Goats and Blueberry Señoritas” by poet Richard Blanco and playwright Vanessa Garcia, then moving on to the crowd-pleasing “Legally Blonde: The Musical,” Actors’ Playhouse artistic director David Arisco felt it was time to take on a show he and executive director Barbara Stein had thought about producing ever since they saw the Broadway original.

“I thought, ‘Let’s do some theater that moves people, opens their minds. They may see it and still be struggling, so there’s more discussion in the car and at home,’” says Arisco, who is working with associate director-choreographer Ron Hutchins on the musical.  “It’s a show that’s so theatrical.  There’s diversity in the cast and in the music, which has elements of gospel, R&B, Broadway, klezmer, girl group songs…And it doesn’t tie things up with a neat bow, the way a movie like ‘The Help’ does.”

Franco Kiglies (Noah Gellman), Toddra Brunson (Washing Machine), Don
Seward (Dryer) and Kareema Khouri (Caroline Thibodeaux) in rehearsals
for “Caroline, or Change” at Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre.
(Photo courtesy of Brooke Noble)

“Caroline, or Change” has its roots in memories of Kushner’s small-town Louisiana childhood. Growing up in a Jewish household with parents who were musicians, he interacted with the family’s Black maid as the civil rights movement was heating up, as President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, as a fractured country was coming apart at the seams.

Initially asked to write his long-gestating story as the libretto for an opera, Kushner shifted to the world of musical theater, collaborating with Tesori (whose past shows include “Violet,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Shrek the Musical”) and the brilliantly inventive director George C. Wolfe, the Tony Award-winning “Angels in America” director who was then artistic director and producer at Manhattan’s Public Theater.

In certain ways, “Caroline, or Change” still reveals its operatic roots. Nearly every word is sung, and recitative (dialogue sung in the rhythms of regular speech vs. the varied notes of a composed song) is part of the musical package.

“This requires actor-singers with great musicianship,” says Arisco. “The music is so complicated.  I brought in Antoine Khouri as music director and conductor –  this is the first musical in my 36 years here that I’m using a conductor (vs. a music director who plays with a show’s other musicians).”

Khouri, the orchestra program director at Fort Lauderdale’s Pine Crest School, is married to actor-singer Kareema Khouri, who stars as Caroline, and the couple’s youngest son London is making his debut as Caroline’s son Joe.

The Khouri family is part of the deep bench of talent Arisco has gathered to play roles that range from straightforward characters to anthropomorphized ones, objects that come to life in Caroline’s imagination: the Washing Machine (Toddra Brunson), the Dryer (Don Seward) and the Radio (Asher Makeba, Gabrielle Graham and Whitney Renee) in Caroline’s basement, as well as a Bus (also Seward) and the calming Moon (Tyler Symone).

Asher Makeba, daughter of “Cleanup Woman” singer-songwriter Betty Wright, plays Radio with two other actors in the Actors’ Playhouse production of “Caroline, or Change.” (Photo courtesy of Aman Lexidor)

One example of the interconnectedness of many in the cast:  Makeba, the daughter the late “Clean Up Woman” singer Betty Wright, studied with teacher-actor Charlette Seward (the former drama director at Miami Northwestern Senior High’s PAVAC magnet program and the mother of cast member Don Seward). So did Khouri, who has known Don Seward since he was a boy and calls Charlette Seward “the base of what I am.”

Annaya Charlicia plays Caroline’s best pal Dotty Moffett, Cassidy Joseph is Caroline’s burgeoning activist daughter Emmie, and Liam X. Williams plays her elder son Jackie.

Only two members of the Gellman family, Caroline’s Jewish employers, enter the basement to interact with her – and both are critical to the musical’s emotional heft.

Eight-year-old Noah Gellman (Franco Kiglies) idolizes Caroline as a substitute mother figure, though she’ll have none of it.  She and Noah share a secret – she lets him light the one cigarette she allows herself every day – but that’s as warm and fuzzy as the brusque Caroline ever gets.

Franco Kiglies plays the imaginative, lonely Noah Gellman in the production of “Caroline, or Change” at the Miracle Theatre. (Photo courtesy of Alberto Romeu)

Noah’s clarinetist dad Stuart (Brian Golub) has already remarried, but new wife and stepmom Rose Stopnick Gellman (Jeni Hacker) doesn’t seem to fit in. It’s Rose who devises a way to give Caroline a tiny “raise” and teach Noah a lesson at the same time:  Any change left in his pockets when Caroline does the laundry will go home with the maid, though Caroline bristles at any form of charity, including  leftovers and hand-me-downs.  (The extended Gellman/Stopnick family also includes Patti Gardner as Grandma, Peter Tedeschi as Grandpa and Howard Elson as Mr. Stopnick, Rose’s father.)

Khouri and Hacker, the accomplished actor-singers playing Caroline and Rose, know exactly the intricate challenges they face in delivering what Arisco hopes will be a profound experience for the cast and the audience.

“This is a beast of a role,” says Khouri, who was performing in the Actors’ Playhouse production of “Escape to Margaritaville” just over a year ago when Arisco said he wanted to work with her husband as the conductor of “Caroline, or Change.”  “I didn’t get any special treatment. I auditioned along with everyone else.  I studied the original cast album and asked my husband to help me with key moments in the music. I familiarized myself with the orchestrations, the musicality, the feel of it, the words from that time period.”

Annaya Charlicia,. left, as Caroline’s best pal Dotty Moffett, and Kareema Khouri as Caroline in the Actors’ Playhouse production of “Caroline, or Change.” (Photo courtesy of Alberto Romeu)

A Miamian who graduated from the New World School of the Arts high school program then went on to train at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, Khouri and her family decided to move back to Miami in 2019, just in time for COVID-19 to hit. Miraculously, she was able to return to live performance during the pandemic as the knockout singer in Miami New Drama’s “Seven Deadly Sins” outdoors on Lincoln Road. She has worked at theaters throughout the region ever since but knows that Caroline Thibodeaux could be a breakout role for her.

“This score is brilliant, one of the hardest scores I’ve ever sung,” says Khouri.  “The musical is definitely about humanity and allowing yourself to change. Opening yourself, no matter how old you are.”

Though she isn’t Jewish, seven-time Carbonell Award winner Hacker has spent much of the current season steeped in Jewish culture and traditions, first playing a Jewish mother in the Zoetic Stage world premiere of “Wicked Child,” then working alongside director Bari Newport as associate director on GableStage’s current production of the epic “The Lehman Trilogy,” now playing a Jewish stepmother in “Caroline, or Change.”

Jeni Hacker, left, as stepmom Rose Stopnick Gellman, and Kareema Khouri as Caroline have words about the ironing in the Actors’ Playhouse production of “Caroline, or Change.” (Photo courtesy of Alberto Romeu)

Rose, Hacker says, “is trying to figure out how to be a mom to a grieving stepson, a good second wife to a grieving man, a good daughter-in-law, a good daughter to a father who seems constantly disapproving…Rose is just trying to be right by everyone, and also by her new maid, where she runs into the most open resistance. Caroline is not in the business of hiding her opinions.”

Hacker also cites the sung-through, operatic nature of the musical, the use of recitative with no rhyme scheme, and the way the come-to-life objects are used as a Greek chorus as challenges for a cast that came in “very prepared.” And of one thing, Hacker is certain: “Kareema Khouri is going to knock the socks off of everyone.  She has an ache in her voice, and we all know that voice is extraordinary.”

Near the end of “Caroline, or Change,” Khouri has a devastating scene with Kiglies, whose Noah is frantic to recover a $20 bill given to him by Rose’s father after he leaves it in his pants pocket and has it confiscated by Caroline.  The two shout back and forth until each says something utterly horrible to the other, relationship-ending reflections of anger and prejudice.

Kiglies, who is actually 11, is a home-schooled ball of energy who has played leads in children’s theater productions at the Miracle. He confesses over Zoom that his ambitions include appearing on Broadway and being Spider-Man when he grows up (“I can actually climb anything,” he says), and he wanted to take on the challenge of “Caroline, or Change” because “it looked like a huge opportunity to expand my capabilities.”

From left, Jeni Hacker, Brian Golub, Peter Tedeschi, Franco Kiglies and Patti Gardner play members of the Gellman family in the Actors’ Playhouse production of “Caroline, or Change.” (Photo courtesy of Alberto Romeu)

He has worked with his father, Arisco and other cast members to understand the 1963 context for Noah’s words to Caroline and hers to him, though that shattering fight is the most difficult moment in the musical for him.  Hacker observes that the moment should be looked at in a variety of contexts – “the culture now, the culture then, what was acceptable even though it wasn’t right. It’s been most interesting that an 11-year-old invokes conversations that wouldn’t happen in a room full of adults.”

Now, Kiglies says, “The mean things I say are for a play. It’s not like I’m actually saying them.”

Makeba, who toured the world with singer-songwriter Wright, is a mother of four and private vocal coach.  She notes that her own grandmother, a musician, worked as a maid on South Beach and had to be taken to and from her job by car, meeting  a curfew to be back on the mainland.  But even before “Caroline, or Change” starts its run, Makeba says working on it has been a thought-provoking experience.

“This show is deep and can be very heavy…As the Radio, we add a lot of color to the painting,” she says.  “On the first day of rehearsals, we talked about our families. Have things changed, or is it the same?  It leaves you with hopeful feelings that we’ve moved forward – but how far have we moved?”

Patti Gardner, Brian Golub, Cassidy Joseph, Franco Kiglies, Kareema Khouri, Jeni Hacker, Annaya Charlicia and Peter Tedeschi play characters with clashing lives in “Caroline, or Change” at the Miracle Theatre, Coral Gables. (Photo courtesy of Alberto Romeu)

Undeniably, the actor says, the multilayered musical “is painful to go through and watch. But I’m learning not to put everybody in the same category…You wonder if Caroline will see herself as the family sees her – how strong, courageous and tough she is.”

Arisco, who notes that he was the same age as the Noah character in 1963, believes that although “Caroline, or Change” is set six decades ago, its relevance and resonance after the Black Lives Matter movement and amid growing antisemitism underscores that the powerful musical is theater that matters.

“This is still so sadly relevant and important. Has the country made improvements? History really can repeat itself if you’re not careful…Hopefully, this will open our minds,” he says.

WHAT: “Caroline, or Change” by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori

WHERE: Actors Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables

WHEN: Previews Thursday, March 28; opens at 8 p.m. Friday, March 29; regular performances 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (additional matinee at 2 p.m. Wednesday, April 3), through Sunday, April 14

COST: $40, $55, $65, $75, $85, $125 opening night tickets include open bar and reception. Seniors 65 and over get 10 percent off weekdays only, students with valid student ID pay $15 for a rush ticket available 15 minutes before a weekday performance

INFORMATION: 305-444-9293 or actorsplayhouse.org

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com. 

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