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‘Caroline, Or Change’ review: A pretentious Broadway revival

There is just one deeply satisfying moment in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s flawed 2003 musical “Caroline, Or Change.” 

It’s a song called “Lot’s Wife,” in which Caroline — a dutiful, low-paid black maid in 1960s Louisiana — finally vents her feelings and frustrations after walking out on the job.

“Murder me, God, down in that basement,” she says. “Murder my dreams, so I stop wantin’.” Powerful stuff.

Yet in the new revival of the show, which opened Wednesday night at Studio 54, Sharon D Clarke’s rendition doesn’t explode so much as spark a tiny bit.   

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2 hours and 25 minutes, with one intermission. At the Broadhurst Theatre, 254 W 54th St.

Director Michael Longhurst’s entire lethargic production, brought here from Britain, denies her the snowballing build-up that would ensure a big payoff in the end.

Of course, Kushner and Tesori’s show has always been a pompous slip of a thing that’s rather high on itself. There are no melodies to speak of and the whole score sounds like a wind chime.

The Post’s Clive Barnes thought as much 17 years ago, when he wrote that “the result seems unnecessarily pretentious and emotionally chilly” and that the music was “drearily pastiche.”

Turns out “Caroline” hasn’t changed that much.

And then there are the talking appliances. In the basement in which single mom Caroline does the laundry for a Jewish family, the washing machine (Arica Jackson), dryer (Kevin S. McAllister) and radio (Nasia Thomas, Nya and Harper Miles) all sing — as though we’re watching a very special anti-capitalist episode of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.”  

The Moon (N’Kenge) gets a few songs, too, and zips across the top of the stage in a silly ski-lift.

All of this is tedious.

Upstairs are Noah (Adam Makké and others), a little boy who obsesses over Caroline after the death of his mother, his distant dad Stuart (John Cariani), who plays the clarinet, and his step-mom Rose (Caissie Levy), a displaced New Yorker who rudely mispronounces the maid’s name as Carolynn. In voice and manner, Levy doesn’t act like she’s in the ’60s, but instead a modern-day “Karen.”  

Rose (Caissie Levy) makes Caroline (Sharon D. Clarke) an offer.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Because Noah has a bad habit of leaving change in his pockets, Rose tells Caroline she can keep the coins for herself to teach him a lesson. This small act — as the title would suggest — sets off a litany of big problems. 

And, as we’re in the ’60s, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the death of John F. Kennedy come up, coldly, but somehow stir up no emotions from an audience of non-profit theater subscribers.

Intriguingly, Caroline’s daughter Emmie (Samantha Williams, with terrific voice and energy) gets a subplot involving Confederate statues, and this was written long before tearing down monuments became the hot thing to do.

Clarke is strong in a role that’s damn tough. To build a wall between demoralizing work and a tricky home life, Caroline is mean, introverted and not chatty with anybody — including her child admirer who she lets light her cigarettes. The gifted actress makes sense of all those hardened qualities. Still, you don’t fully embrace her character, or anybody else.

Diehard fans of “Caroline, Or Change” love to defend the sophistication of the show having no likable characters or memorable songs. Fine. But such musicals tend not to do so well on Broadway.

Ya know, like “Caroline” didn’t 17 years ago.

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