Tony Kushner spent his childhood in Lake Charles, La., with African-American maid Maudi Lee Davis. Not surprisingly, this gifted New York Jewish writer (“Angels in America”) set his most autobiographical work – the Tony Award-nominated musical “Caroline, or Change” – in 1963 at the same location on the cusp of real civil rights change.
The black housekeeper, Caroline Thibodeaux, gives the young Kushner character Noah Gellman an edgy life lesson about race and understanding. That lesson resonates as powerfully now in a riveting revival by Moonbox Productions as when this critic first saw the Kushner (lyrics)/Jeanine Tesori (music) show Off-Broadway in 2003.
Both Caroline and Noah are vulnerable and ready to gain timely insight about each other and their respective families. Thanks to Kushner and Tesori’s imaginative collaboration, the frustrated housekeeper sees the basement washer and dryer she operates in Janie E. Howland’s smartly disarming set singing to her in eye-catching moments of angst. A trio serves as a kind of Greek chorus, while actors also become the moon and the bus she takes to and from the Gellmans’ home. Caroline seems clearly eager to make a life change after working for the Jewish family for 22 years.
At the same time, motherless 8-year-old Noah clearly longs for ongoing guidance and attention.
Widower father Stuart is a lost soul finding his own comfort with klezmer strains on his clarinet. Noah’s well-intentioned stepmother, Rose, tries to help with mixed results. One vivid method has Rose declaring any loose change Noah leaves in his clothes can be taken by Caroline – one obvious meaning of the title – in order to develop her stepson’s sense of responsibility. Noah regards Caroline at one point as though she were president of the United States, but the once-abused single mom has her hands full with four children of her own.
Caroline’s most outspoken child proves both challenging and spirited. Daughter Emmie eventually dares to take action against a Confederate statue. A supporter of nonviolence, she also engages in a very lively dispute about civil rights with Noah’s visiting maternal grandfather Mr. Stopnick, who favors physical protest instead.
Director Allison Olivia Choat, lighting designer Jeffrey E. Salzberg, and music director Dan Rodriguez make the second act Hanukkah party scene a vivid and memorable one. In the end, though, Kushner’s affecting and wide-ranging musical fully embraces love, life, and acceptance in a universally timely way.
Choat sharply directs emotional face-offs between characters – particularly Caroline and Noah – as well as ensemble situations. Yewande Odetoyinbo captures Caroline’s remarkable tenacity and amazing heart. With a voice as grand and rich as her character, Odetoyinbo has all of the gospel and bluesy fire that Tonya Pinkins brought to the role in New York. Ben-Choi Harris could use a little more spunk as Noah, but his moments of confrontation with Odetoyinbo’s feisty Caroline are rightly arresting.
Also notable is Kira Troilo, who catches Emmie’s fearlessness and her deep love for her mother. Sarah Kornfeld sharply captures Rose’s earnest struggle to balance caring for Noah and attention to his upbringing. Kushner powerfully asks all people – children and adults, women and men, African-American and white, and Jewish and non-Jewish – to examine the emotional change in the pockets of our day-to-day lives. Caroline’s own change is a catalyst for Noah’s, and by extension, that of humanity. Choat and company make “Caroline, or Change” glisten with resonance.
“Caroline, or Change,” Moonbox Productions, through May 11 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com.