We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Describe it however you want—an angry pop-inflected anti-musical, a blues-licked chamber opera with children’s-fable overtones, a tortured gospel shout with an accompanying chorus of tsoris and klezmer—just describe it, to your friends and your family and even the neighbors you don’t particularly like: Caroline, or Change, the Tony Kushner–Jeanine Tesori show that spins a vintage-’60s story of racial tension and domestic drama and national tragedy into melodies of gold and brass and brittle glass, warrants the attention. And Greg Ganakas’ Studio Theatre production—the first major remount outside New York—makes a fine case for stubborn, stirring Caroline as musical theater of a thrillingly substantial sort.

It’s perhaps a degree shy of shattering, what with Julia Nixon’s warmly sung but dramatically muted performance softening its center, but in critical ways Studio’s is an improvement on the Broadway version. Certainly it’s the “more spartan staging” the New York Times wished for so wistfully in May 2004, when George C. Wolfe’s widely hailed Public Theater production moved uptown to the 1,100-seat Eugene O’Neill Theater: Intimate and unamplified—yet spacious enough in Studio’s double-height Metheny Theatre to convey the chasms that yawn between the African-American title character and the 8-year-old Jewish boy whose family employs her—Ganakas’ take on the tragedy of Caroline Thibodeaux feels thoroughly human, even as it’s finding expressively lo-tech ways to stage the show’s whimsical frills.

Those, famously, include a matched set of singing appliances who provide a sardonic sort of company for Caroline in the below-sea-level basement of the Gellmans’ Louisiana home. Equal parts workplace and purgatory, that space is where she spends sweltering days doing the laundry and doing her best to avoid young Noah (a confident Max Talisman), who’s been trying to imprint on her, duckling-style, since his mother died. Under the tall stairs that unite Debra Booth’s spare two-level set, the washing machine (Allison Blackwell, whose fringed, layered skirts wittily suggest a spin cycle) hums and mutters seductively of comforts and agitation—a freighted word in the Jim Crow South—while the radio, represented by a Motownish trio that’s all shimmy and snakeskin sheath (Monique Paulwell, Omoro Omoighe, and Kearstin Piper Brown), croons upbeat, close-harmony discouragement about how “tough and dreary and all disheveled” Caroline looks: “Thirty-nine and a divorcée/Took a wrong step, slip and fell/Found her simple self in hell.”

The dryer (Elmore James) turns up the heat with the observation that “the pit of your abasement looks a bit like this ol’ basement,” and you begin to understand: Caroline’s not quite cruel enough to reject Noah entirely, but she’s a resolutely unhappy sort, angry about the hand life has dealt her and damned if she’s gonna mother a kid whose parents don’t pay her enough to mother her own properly. “I am mean, and I am tough,” sings this painfully self-aware woman, “and 30 dollars ain’t enough.”

And yet he needs her, and she knows it, so it’s pretty damn rough when the limited, uneasy friendship she does allow gets wrecked. With his father (a nicely rueful Bobby Smith) frozen and distant, Noah’s stepmother (an affectingly wrong-footed Tia Speros) tries to marry discipline and charity by telling Caroline to keep the change the boy constantly leaves in his pockets, a move Caroline finds insulting—though eventually, after Noah begins deliberately forgetting the odd quarter, the better to insinuate himself into her thoughts, she’s seduced by the things the new policy allows her to do for her deprived kids. Yes, this is a Kushner script, with all the indignant indictments of the American Way that it can imply.

It isn’t every musical that has the nerve to deconstruct the charitable impulse in a boppy hopscotch quintet, but this one does, and that’s one of its strengths: Kushner, and Noah, know that sometimes we do kind things not out of kindness but out of need. “Caroline takes my money home,” sings lonely, bereft Noah before the crisis comes: “Now I know what they talk about at the Thibodeaux house at suppertime/Before it was a mystery/Now they count my quarters and they talk about me.” The condescension of it, the sad, needy narcissism: The Thibodeauxes, of course, aren’t talking about anything but their own lives, lives Noah can’t begin to understand—though there is a fun fantasy sequence (“Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw”) in which he imagines them gratefully taking him in. Then that crisis does come: A grandfather’s Hanukkah gift, a crisp $20, ends up in Caroline’s bleach cup, and Noah demands its return, and terrible things are said—sung, really, laceration in a phrase turned softly as a lullaby.

“Change comes fast, and change comes slow,” people keep singing, and Caroline’s headstrong daughter (an engaging Trisha Jeffrey) strains at the apron strings that bind her to her mother’s keep-your-head-down ethic even as Noah’s embittered leftist grandpa (a hilarious Jim Scopeletis, in a part Kushner must have written with Awake and Sing!’s irascible Marxist patriarch in mind) eggs her on. The silvery moon (Blackwell again, backlit and radiant) chants and chimes through her phases, and a baritone bus (James again) groans around the corner with news of the Kennedy assassination while rumors swirl about the defacement of a local Confederate memorial—the world, as Kushner’s most famous play will always and forever remind us, spins only forward, but nobody promised the spinning wouldn’t leave us reeling. Caroline’s hunger for change, and her clenched fear of it, grounds Caroline in the raw and the real, and that’s where Nixon’s contained performance might be less than what the show demands: Never does she seem near enough the edge to actually think of striking her boss, which one song asks her to contemplate, and only in the great, wrenching aria of self-loathing the authors give her at the show’s climax does Nixon finally gather the audience to her and crack its spine.

She does that pretty ruthlessly, though, and as two families fracture and threaten to fail around her, Ganakas’ restraint pays off: The spareness and intimacy of Studio’s staging become bareness and inescapability, and Kushner and Tesori break your heart and hand you the pieces, offering you the chance to make something new of them. “Murder me, Lord,” Nixon’s Caroline sings in that scorching spotlight moment, “Murder my dreams so I stop wanting/Murder my hope…/Strangle the pride that makes me crazy…/Scour my skin ’til I stop feeling.” Go on, now, listen to her lament—let Caroline scour your skin; start feeling again. Change.CP