Should you happen to pass Sharon D Clarke on the street, you might not find her to be a particularly imposing figure. But as the title character in the superlative Broadway revival of the musical “Caroline, or Change,” she commands the stage with such towering authority that it is almost surprising to see anyone else work up the nerve to step on it. Portraying a maid in the 1960s South struggling with her finances and the emotional pressures of not one but two families, Clarke imbues the character with a quiet but smoldering intensity that galvanizes the musical into vivid, almost nerve-rattling life whenever she is center stage.

For this viewer, who has now seen the show five times since its debut at the Public Theater in 2003, “Caroline, or Change” remains a musical that is easier to admire than to fully warm to. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given that the complex book and lyrics are written by “Angels in America” author Tony Kushner, whose work has always been marked by a ferocious, inquisitive intelligence that does not easily make room for the kind of sentiment that is so often a hallmark of Broadway musicals. He’s more interested, here and in much of his work, in stimulating the mind and stirring the conscience than tugging at the heart.

In “Caroline, or Change,” Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori created a layered portrait of two families: the Gellmans, a Jewish family, and the family of their Black maid, Caroline — with a particular focus on the relationship between Caroline and the Gellmans’ 8-year-old son Noah (Gabriel Amoroso at the performance I saw). Tesori’s music ranges across an astonishing variety of styles: from period pop R&B to blues and spirituals, to klezmer music and even a smidgen of pseudo-Mozart. She is the most accomplished musical polymath composing for theater.

The great strength of “Caroline,” which I see now more clearly than I did almost 20 years ago, is the refusal to sentimentalize the central character. Bitter, terse and resistant to attempts to establish the kind of amiable rapport that those who hire servants expect from them, she is a powerful symbol of passive resistance to the system. Although she is bemused by the more activist agitation of her teenage daughter, Emmie (Samantha Williams), who is attuned to the nascent Civil Rights Movement, Caroline unknowingly embodies a rebuke to the racist status quo.

Clarke portrays the character as if she were made of steel and fire, not mere flesh and blood. Her voice can soften itself into a gentle instrument when Caroline is opening her heart to express feelings of affection or regret. But more often, and particularly in her final solo, which all but blows the back wall off the theater (it’s one of the great 11’clock numbers, worthy of comparison to the legendary “Rose’s Turn”), Clarke’s voice comes at you like a thunderbolt, so charged is it with an intensity of feeling, mostly of anger, frustration and righteousness.

The central strain in the plot is the one-way friendship between Caroline and Noah, a lonely only child whose mother has died, and who shows his own truculence in resisting the well-meaning efforts of his stepmother, Rose (Caissie Levy). Noah often heads to the basement where Caroline works in furnace-like conditions washing, drying and folding the laundry. But Noah’s worshipful attempts to cajole some feeling from Caroline are mostly swatted away.

Conflict flares when Rose attempts to instill financial responsibility in Noah by suggesting that Caroline keep the change that Noah leaves in his pockets. At first resistant and insulted — Clarke’s Caroline replies with a freezing contempt — Caroline eventually agrees to participate in Rose’s scheme, with disastrous final results.

This pillar of the show is sturdily constructed, and rises to a bruising emotional climax. But much of what surrounds it — and there is quite a lot, with almost 20 roles in the show — is not always as captivating. Caroline’s company in the Gellman home isn’t so much the family as her fantasy companions downstairs: a washing machine (portrayed with lively humor by Arica Jackson, wreathed in bubbles), a dryer of almost demonic ferocity (Kevin S. McAllister’s dark baritone wraps itself confidently around the role), and a radio (Nasia Thomas, Nya and Harper Miles, channeling the girl group sound). These diversions may delight or, well, merely divert.

The Gellmans are a somewhat fractured family. Levy provides Rose with a nice combination of unrequited affectionate and frazzled exasperation, as both Noah and even her still-mourning husband, Stuart, played with funny-sad vagueness by John Cariani, remain locked doors to which she cannot find the keys. Amoroso gives a winning and buoyantly energetic performance as Noah. Joining the clan intermittently are Stuart’s parents, Grandma (Joy Hermalyn) and Grandpa (Stuart Zagnit), and, on a Hanukkah visit, Rose’s father (a feisty Chip Zien), whose radical convictions find an amusing echo — but also a smart foil — in Caroline’s Emmie.

Almost equal attention is given to the divorced Caroline’s own family: Emmie (played with glowing magnetism by Williams), who becomes involved in the felling of a statue celebrating the Confederacy, and her two younger brothers. Yet another significant role is that of Dotty, a fellow maid and virtually Caroline’s only friend, who attempts to chip away at the ice surrounding her friend’s heart, and whom Tamika Lawrence brings to tender, affectionate life.

The musical even takes time for considerable discussion of the assassination of John F. Kennedy — unavoidable, perhaps, given the era being depicted, but nevertheless something of a stray strand distracting from Caroline’s story. And did I mention the moon, who floats above the proceedings, giving sage-like premonitions of change sung with a blooming lyric beauty by N’Kenge?

All this is a lot to delineate with depth within the limited confines of a musical, despite the nicely fluid direction of Michael Longhurst. At times, “Caroline, or Change” feels frustratingly diffuse as it strives to paint thorough portraits of two families confronting both internal conflicts and social injustice.

But stripping away any element of this far-seeing and fiercely imaginative show might compromise the whole. In any case it has become a landmark of musical theater in the 21st century. Still, for this viewer, it is the unblinking yet compassionate portrait of the title character that lifts the show into the sublime, and Clarke’s performance — much like Tonya Pinkins’s in the original production — is the driving force behind its moments of transcendence.

“Caroline, or Change” opened at Studio 54 on Oct. 27, 2021. 

Review photo credit: Joan Marcus

Creative: Directed by Michael Longhurst; Choreographed by Ann Yee; Book by Tony Kushner; Music by Jeanine Tesori; Lyrics by Tony Kushner; Scenic Design by Fly Davis; Costume Design by Fly Davis; Lighting Design by Jack Knowles; Sound Design by Paul Arditti.

Producers: Roundabout Theatre Company; Produced in association with Lot’s Wife, Hunter Arnold, Caiola Productions/Willette & Manny Klausner, Chambers-D’Angora/Joseph & Alyson Graci and Dale Franzen.

Cast: Sharon D Clarke, Gabriel Amoroso, Alexander Bello, John Cariani, Joy Hermalyn, Arica Jackson, Tamika Lawrence, Caissie Levy, Adam Makké, Kevin S. McAllister, Harper Miles, N’Kenge, Nya, Richard Alexander Phillips, Jayden Theophile, Nasia Thomas, Jaden Myles Waldman, Samantha Williams, Stuart Zagnit and Chip Zien.