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A Season to Savor a Cherished Musical Again and Again (and Again)

Settling into my seat at Studio 54, I let the sound design begin to transport me like a musical overture — the chittering of creatures and the bubbling of water, echoing from tall grasses and low haze on the edge of a Southern swamp.

At each performance of “Caroline, or Change,” I look forward to this calming bit of preshow acclimation, even as a Confederate statue stands imposingly at center stage. And I keep my eyes peeled for the theater’s Covid safety enforcer patrolling the orchestra, arms crossed, scanning the audience for any unmasked faces. Spotting him calms me, too.

When the lights dim, the statue is wheeled off, and in its place when they come up again is Caroline Thibodeaux, in the person of the astonishing British actor Sharon D Clarke, doing laundry in a Louisiana basement in 1963.

I didn’t set out to see this musical masterpiece by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori seven times this season, but I have. For the record, I’d been scared to see it even once — scared the way you get when you cherish a work of art so fiercely that you don’t want to risk finding it diminished.

It didn’t matter to my brain that theater’s habit of reinvention is one of the things I love about the form, or that this Broadway revival got rave reviews in London. “Caroline” is my favorite musical, and I was protective of my memory of it. I’d been mad since 2004 that George C. Wolfe’s original Broadway production ran only a few months. (Hold a grudge much? Yeah, I know.)

Yet Michael Longhurst’s gorgeous iteration, for Roundabout Theater Company, turned out to be just what I’ve needed: a work of intricate beauty to savor again and again in this strange, uncertain season. After catching the first preview in October, I started telling people that I would see it three times a week if I could.

Sounded like I was exaggerating. I was not.

Inspired by Kushner’s own Louisiana childhood, “Caroline” is the fictional story of a divorced Black maid working for a Jewish family mired in grief and paying her what they know is too little to get by on. Comedy and fantasy leaven the ugliness and pain, but the music, the lyrics, the characters are complex. It’s not a show to be absorbed in one swoop.

If this production had opened as planned in what was to have been the busy spring of 2020, there’s no way I would have seen it as many times as I have. Repeated viewing at any scale is a rare luxury for me, and the chance to do it to such an extent with “Caroline” is a direct effect of the pandemic. In an unsettled season with a cascade of postponements and cancellations, lower ticket demand and fewer productions mean bargain prices and, if you’re a theater journalist like I am, a lot more free evenings.

So I have been taking advantage — which I feel guilty admitting, because of course I could have spent that same time seeing deserving new work that I missed completely. Instead I’ve been giving one show a closer, longer look than usual, watching extraordinary cast members deepen their performances so far beyond that thrilling first preview that I can’t honestly regret it.

Critics tend to see multiple productions of the same play — especially in seasons when there seem to be 47 stagings of “King Lear” or 18 of “The Tempest” — but not multiple performances of a single production, unless it transfers somewhere, usually to Broadway from Off Broadway or an out-of-town tryout. Even then, we only see the beginning of each run, while the production keeps changing after that.

In theater — unlike films and TV shows, which stay frozen no matter how many times you watch them — the ritual of repetition coexists with change. As in other kinds of live performance, exact duplication is impossible, and also not the point. Evolution is the hope, which I’ve seen realized in “Caroline.”

It has been quite frankly exhilarating to watch the company get tighter and tighter, especially at a time when public perception is that Broadway in particular and theater in general are a pandemic shambles. At the matinee just this Wednesday — the matinee! — Clarke gave a shattering performance, as alive to the text and the moment as any other I’d seen, but with elements new to me: an inflection, a movement, a vocal fillip at the end of a song. Such are the many layers of her character.

“I love dissecting it. I love it,” Clarke exulted to me in an interview in October, the day after the first preview.

Three months on, with the musical’s limited run set to close this weekend, it feels like she is still investigating.

The other show I revisited this fall was Enda Walsh’s “Medicine,” but that wasn’t because I’d been wild about it initially. Walsh’s plays sometimes land with me and sometimes don’t. This one — chaotic, often funny, with Domhnall Gleeson’s understated performance at its heart — did not.

I first saw it in November at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Six days later, in an interview, Gleeson told me that he had only just figured out how the show, which the company had performed elsewhere, worked in the St. Ann’s space. I gave it another shot because of that — and because his passion for another Walsh play, “The Walworth Farce,” prompted me to read it, an experience that left me wide awake when I finished it after 1 a.m., my every nerve ending taut.

The second time I saw “Medicine,” in December, I watched it more deliberately, and it absolutely landed. Outside afterward, I walked through a patch of park and stood staring out at the East River, shaken. If the play had stayed in town longer, I’d have gone again.

But when I see a show repeatedly in the same run — as I did with two of the plays in Phyllida Lloyd’s Donmar Warehouse Shakespeare trilogy, also at St. Ann’s — I tend to top out at three viewings.

That’s what happened with the Broadway productions of “The Cher Show” (where seeing Stephanie J. Block’s understudy at one performance made me realize Block’s particular power) and “Sea Wall/A Life” (where I listened ferociously to figure out what was sound design and what was sound bleed from outside). My curiosity about both was professional, though; going more than once was about reporting.

Jamie Lloyd’s 2019 revival of “Betrayal,” starring Tom Hiddleston, was different. Its first preview blindsided me: a Pinter play that could make me cry? I became fascinated with the geometry of emotion in the production — with where Lloyd placed the characters on the set, and how their isolation signified. Determined to watch the staging from different angles in the house, I went five times in all.

When I told Lloyd about that, during an interview toward the end of the show’s run, he inquired about the actors: “And have you noticed variations in their performances?” I still wonder which answer he might have been looking for: reassurance that the show had stayed lively or that it hadn’t flown off the rails.

I would be a little heartbroken if “Caroline” had gone off the rails — always my worry when a production runs for a while. As it is, when it gives its final performance on Sunday, I plan to be there, seeing it for the eighth time.

After that, I expect I’ll be in the market for a new obsession. I’m thinking maybe “Company.”

Circassia News

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