Veteran Denver performer says Caroline, Or Change needs to be told because ‘history repeats itself’
When Mary Louise Lee stands on the Aurora Fox stage starring in its current regional premiere of the celebrated musical Caroline, Or Change, she stands on the shoulders of her ancestors.
Lee is both Denver’s official First Lady and Denver’s unofficial First Lady of Song. But when she plays a black maid working for a Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana, “I’m paying tribute to the Carolines of the world,” she told the DCPA NewsCenter. “Many of them are my relatives from the past who had to take those jobs for $30 a week. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. So I am doing it for them, and for all of those who are working those jobs today. I’m doing it for all of them.”
Caroline, Or Change, now running through May 5, is based largely on the childhood of Tony Kushner, who is widely considered to be America’s greatest living playwright (Angels in America). But it has taken 15 years for a local company to take on the challenge of staging this ambitious musical he penned with Jeanine Tesori, the most honored female theatrical composer in history.
Caroline, Or Change, which was nominated for Best Musical in 2004 (it lost to Avenue Q), introduces Kushner’s alter ego, an 8-year-old Noah Gellman. When the boy’s mother dies of cancer and his father remarries, Noah is fully drawn to the no-nonsense family maid.
Lee plays an impoverished, single mother of four who is allowed to keep any pocket change she finds while doing the family’s laundry. “At first, Caroline says, ‘No. I’m not going to take pennies from a baby,’ ” Lee said. “But she ends up taking it because her kids need to go to the dentist. They need clothes. She needs to pay the rent.” But the arrangement goes wrong when a $20 bill goes missing, creating a family crisis that plays out against the backdrop of the growing civil-rights movement swirling outside.
Lee said she wants to tell this story because of what hasn’t changed in America since 1963. “History repeats itself,” she said. “We are not only racially divided in this country. I think we’re completely divided in a lot of different ways. That starts from the top. It really does – and it trickles down.” Added Director Kenny Moten: “Even though this show was on Broadway back in 2004, in many ways it is more timely now in 2019 than it was then. Some of those themes have really come back to the forefront.”
But, Lee adds, “I think this beautiful show will make people think about things differently. It will make people think about how you can change. There’s always an opportunity to change.”
What’s in a name?
Lee is, of course, married to Michael B. Hancock, who is currently running for a third term as mayor of Denver. In fact, the May 7 election takes place two days after Caroline, Or Change closes. But while Lee may be the First Lady, she has been second to none in the local music scene since long before she married the mayor in 1994.
Her professional stage career began when she was cast in Beehive, the 1960s Musical at what is now the Garner Galleria Theatre while she was still a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School. Since then, she has sung the national anthem before 78,000 Broncos fans and performed on “America’s Got Talent.” She has performed at three Democratic National Conventions, on military bases worldwide, and last month she warmed up the Civic Center Park crowd at John Hickenlooper’s presidential kick-off rally.
Lee’s lengthy theatre resume includes work at the Arvada Center, Country Dinner Playhouse and three national tours. She won a 2015 True West Award for her performance in Uncle Jed’s Barbershop at the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Theatre, and last year she returned to her signature role as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill for runs at the Vintage Theatre and Garner Galleria Theatre.
“I’ve had this career forever, and that’s why it’s important for me to continue to be who I am and do what I do,” Lee said. “That’s why from the very beginning it was important for me to keep my own name.”
Speaking of names, whenever Hancock attends a performance involving his wife, “I’m ‘Mr. Lee,’ ” he said with a laugh. “Theatre is her world. And in that world, she has been a star since she was a teenager.”
Lee has used her public forum to create Bringing Back the Arts, a foundation that encourages arts education in the public schools. In a coincidence that is perhaps anything but, it turns out that Nathaniel Waite-Lutz, one of two young actors who plays Noah Gellman, won an award from Lee’s foundation through his school four years ago.
“Bringing Back the Arts exists to provide access to our cultural institutions and to promote our local artists,” Lee said. “It’s important to me because I am a proud product of the Denver Public Schools. When I was a student, it wasn’t even a question: You had to take art classes. Now it’s being cut completely. I think it is important for us to make sure that our kids have an artistic outlet so they can use the other half of their brains and grow into balanced adults who are able think outside of the box.”
Keeping it together
Lee’s busy schedule means juggling both her public responsibilities and a full performing slate that recently had her Mary Louise Lee Band performing a month of sold-out tributes to Diana Ross at the Clocktower Cabaret. Lee, also the mother of 20- and 23-year-olds, can’t often make time for the all-consuming demands of starring in a local stage musical. But she was encouraged by a friend to study the score of Caroline, Or Change. “And I knew I wanted to audition as soon as I heard it,” she said.
Lee has reunited with many old friends on this show. She performed with Moten (the director) in a production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the old Country Dinner Playhouse back in 2003. She’s worked before with Musical Director Trent Hines. And the cast includes award-winning actor Leonard Barrett Jr., with whom she performed in a different staging of Ain’t Misbehavin’, and Betty Hart, who directed Lee in Lady Day last year.
“It was just meant to be,” said Lee. And lucky for the Aurora Fox, where she last appeared in Nunsense in 1996.
“She makes a lot of singing seem effortless, and it is the effortlessness that blows your mind,” said Barrett, who added that Lee has been so low-key at rehearsals that many in the cast probably haven’t even put together who she is yet.
Well, except for young Owen Zitek, who plays Caroline’s son, Joe. “I’m creepy. I looked her up on Google, and I was really impressed,” said Zitek, who starred as one of three pinball wizards in the DCPA Theatre Company’s 2018 production of The Who’s Tommy. “She is so nice to us. She really is our mother. She’s like our play mom.”
Sophia Dotson, who last summer became the youngest Colorado Theatre Guild Henry Award winner in history for her work in Miners Alley Playhouse’s Fun Home, shares the role of Noah with Waite-Lutz. “She’s awesome,” Dotson said of Lee. “She’s so supportive of everyone. I don’t think of her as this big star because she is so humble and so talented and such a fun person to be around.”
All that matters to Moten is what Lee brings to the role. And that, he said, is estimable.
“She brings the experience necessary to pull off Caroline, but also an authenticity that I just knew would made her the person I wanted to do this role.”
Lee said the final result “is a loving story presented by an awesome cast.”
She calls Caroline, Or Change “a very loving and heartfelt musical, and I think everybody needs to experience it,” she said. “We’re out there on that stage giving our all to tell this beautiful story about a Jewish family and an African American family that is absolutely amazing and very right for this day and age.”
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
More with Mary Louise Lee: In the Spotlife
- What’s the best thing about being the First Lady? “That I can actually get my platform out there with my foundation, Bringing Back the Arts.”
- Worst thing about being the First Lady? “That I don’t get to see my husband that often.”
- One thing most people don’t know about you? “I am a real down-to-earth kind of chick. I love to shop and I love to travel. And I am crazy. My friends say that all the time. I think I was a comedian in my past life.”
- What’s your TV addiction? “I love to watch “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” and “Potomac.” They are just so absolutely far away from my life and it gives me such a release. I also watch “The Have and The Have Nots.” That’s a Tyler Perry crime drama and soap opera on the Oprah Network. It is so good. And I am a “Sanford and Son” junkie. I have seen every episode. But if it comes on, oh, I’m watching it. I absolutely love it.”
- Favorite performance memory: “I have a couple, but I love performing for our troops because they’re so appreciative. I remember people telling us with tears in their eyes how much it was like bringing a piece of home to them.”
Caroline, Or Change: Ticket information
- Through May 5
- At the Aurora Fox, 9900 E. Colfax Ave.
- Tickets: 303-739-1970 or aurorafox.org
- Caroline Thibodeaux: Mary Louise Lee
- Emmie Thibodeaux and Radio: Krisangela Washington
- Jackie Thibodeaux: Kobe Johnson
- Joe Thibodeaux: Owen Zitek
- Noah Gellman: Sophia Dotson and Nathaniel Waite-Lutz at alternating performances
- Rose Gellman: Maggie Tisdale
- Stuart Gellman: Ben Hilzer
- Grandpa Gellman – Joel Silverman
- Grandma Gellman: Lee Ann Scherlong
- Mr. Stopnik: Wes Munsil
- Washing Machine and The Moon: Rajdulari (No last name)
- Dotty and Radio: Betty Hart
- Radio: Lisa Young
- The Dryer and The Bus: Leonard Barrett, Jr.