Angela M Caesar
book and lyrics by
George C Wolfe
It would be easy to fill the first paragraph of this review with a list of all the musicals that have recently opened or are soon to open in London’s West End. In theatre terms, this really has been the season of the musical, but no other show has come close to combining the emotional impact, social acuity and sheer vocal wallop of Tony Kushner’s Caroline, Or Change, now playing at the National.
It’s an odd title that, and one that turns out like much in this production to have a subtle double meaning. Set in Louisiana 1963, Caroline Thibodeaux is a hard-working maid in the home of the Jewish Gellman family. She spends her days in their basement, where her companions – the washer and the dryer and the radio – are given voice by, respectively, a large-lunged woman in a red head-dress, a superbly be-quiffed Clive Rowe and a trio of women in slinky gold sheath dresses. This is a production that does social realism like few other musicals yet it easily weaves these more symbolic elemnents into its fabric.
The plot moves slowly, but the main thrust of the story is Caroline’s uneasy relationship with Noah the young son of the Gellmans, whose step-mother in, what she believes is, a kind gesture allows Caroline to keep any small change the boy leaves in his pockets on laundry day. When he accidently leaves a twenty dollar bill in his trousers, it’s all it takes to expose all the complex racial and social dynamics at play in that part of the US.
Of course, the change in the title refers not just to money, but also to change in a broader social sense. This is the year of JFK’s assassination and the growth of the civil rights movement under Martin Luthor King. In Caroline’s relationship with her young daughter Emmie (played superbly by Pippa Bennett-Warner), we see two very different attitudes to life and its possibilities. Caroline is stoical and determined, but her daughter sees the potential for a different world within her grasp and has every intention of reaching for it.
Kushner’s musical is thematically rich, with the Gellman’s complicated family situation (father a widower, step-mother kind-hearted but misguided) is equally well fleshed out. This narrative variety is served well by Jeanine Tesori’s music which merges soul, gospel and even klezmer together, and manages to evoke the role of music as a catalyst for social change, as well as driving the plot along.
This is a musical in the truest sense in that all the dialogue is sung. Fortunately it is blessed with a uniformly superb cast, not a duff vocal performance amongst them. In the middle of everything is Caroline herself, played by Tonya Pinkins whose amazingly raw, bluesy voice is at times unbearably emotive.
People who love the fizz and spectacle of a big Broadway show may struggle to warm to Caroline with its simple elegant staging, but for anyone who enjoys theatre they can engage with intellectually and emotionally, this is a must-see.