Review: Caroline, or Change (Acting Up Stage Company & Obsidian Theatre)

Toronto’s Acting Up Stage Company & Obsidian Theatre present the Canadian premiere of Caroline, or Change at the Berkeley Street Theatre through February 12, 2012.

The teaming-up of two formidable Toronto theatre companies to produce the Canadian premiere of a Broadway musical is cause for excitement. Caroline, or Change seems a natural fit for Acting Up Stage Company, renowned for their hard-hitting musicals like last year’s Parade, and Obsidian Theatre whose recent, critically-acclaimed productions Ruined and Topdog/Underdog highlight the work of Black artists and playwrights.

Caroline, or Change is set in 1963 in Lake Charles, Louisiana during the American Civil Rights movement. The year was a watershed in American history and a time of immense change. It was the year of the Great March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, thousands of young Americans were shipping off overseas to fight a war in Vietnam and it was also the year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

The Caroline of the title is Caroline Thibodeaux (Arlene Duncan), an African-American maid for the Gellmans, a wealthy Jewish family. She sullenly yet dutifully attends to her daily laundry duties in the Gellmans’ dank basement and remains steadfast and unwavering in the face of the immense changes in the world and in her own children. Her teenage daughter Emmie (Sabryn Rock) is growing politically aware and increasingly getting swept up in the tide of change despite Caroline’s protestations.

Caroline also develops a strange relationship with Noah (Michael Levinson), the young son of the Gellman family who has recently lost his mother and has taken Caroline as an unwitting surrogate despite shutting off his actual step mother, Rose (Deborah Hay).

As punishment to Noah for not emptying the change from his pockets before putting his clothes in the laundry hamper, Rose allows Caroline to keep the change she finds in the laundry. Though Caroline first refuses she eventually relents leading Noah to intentionally leave change for her to find, imagining himself to be the great benefactor of Caroline’s family.

The production is superbly designed; Michael Gianfrancesco’s split-level set beautifully fills the space in the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs from Noah’s upstairs room to Caroline’s cramped basement on the apron of the stage. Peter McBoyle’s sound design assures an even mix between the band and vocals that fills the space nicely.

The performances are also excellent. Arlene Duncan (most recognizable from her role on CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie) particularly stands out; her Caroline is measured and balanced. She imbues Caroline with dignity while quietly conveying her seething anger and pain. Duncan never gives in to the temptation to play up the pathos of her character’s situation to elicit sympathy. Oh, and did I mention she can sing?

In fact, the entire cast is an embarrassment of vocal riches. Fellow Mooney on Theatre editor Tiffany Budhyanto was my guest for the evening and she remarked how every single cast member was a consistently fabulous singer each capable of pulling off the powerful gospel-style belt required in much of the score. The powerhouse vocalists in the cast all get the chance to show off without ever going overboard (credit to musical director Reza Jacobs).

The other standout performance for me is Michael Levinson as Noah Gellman. I’ve come to lower my expectations when it comes to child actors but he excels at both the singing and acting of the part and comes across as natural and believable.

Perhaps the fact that I was paying such close attention to the design details and the performances alludes to the fact that I wasn’t exactly rapt in the story. The show is a mostly sung-through musical and the majority of the score is in the recitative “talk singing” style instead of a musical that features a series of distinctive songs.

The show kind of feels to me like it’s sitting halfway between being a full-fledged play and a musical and doesn’t entirely pull off either. The politics of the era aren’t treated in a way that felt satisfying to me. There are a few moments, like the argument between Caroline’s daughter Emmie and Rose’s father, that come tantalizingly close but there isn’t enough follow-through.

The device where inanimate objects – the washing machine and dryer, Caroline’s radio and the moon – are personified by actors is interesting but the purpose isn’t exactly clear other than maybe being Caroline’s imagined escape from her dreary surroundings. It came across to me as more of a stylistic gimmick than a well thought-out intention.

Still, even though the script and score didn’t entirely connect with me I thought it was a superb production featuring a phenomenally talented cast and is worth a look if only for the sheer talent on display.


  • Caroline, or Change is playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs (26 Berkeley Street) until February 12, 2012
  • Shows run Wednesday-Saturday, 8PM; Saturday, 2PM; Sunday, 7PM with an additional 3PM performance on Sunday, February 12
  • Tickets $32.00 to $45.00 (20% discount for students and seniors)
  • Tickets are available by phone 416.368.3110 or visit

Photo credit: Londa Larmond, Jewelle Blackman, Arlene Duncan, Alana Hibbert, Neema Bickersteth in Caroline, or Change, Photo by Joanna Akyol