Caroline, or Change

Book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, music by Jeanine Tesori
Chichester Festival Theatre
Hampstead Theatre
to

It is now a dozen years since this musical made its London debut at the National Theatre in a memorable production created at the Public in New York and, via Broadway, retaining its director George C Wolfe and star Tonya Pinkins.

This new version, directed by Michael Longhurst, debuted in the Minerva at Chichester last year and features an equally impressive leading lady, Sharon D Clarke, in the role of Caroline Thibodeaux, a 39-year-old black maid whose existence in the closing months of 1963 seems composed of nothing but drudgery.

She works for a Jewish family, the Gellmans, in Lake Charles, Louisiana and finds an unexpected kindred spirit in eight-year-old Noah Gellman, played by Charlie Gallacher at the performance under review. He is an only son, still mourning his mother, a recent victim of cigarette-induced cancer.

Despite the efforts of Lauren Ward’s cheery Rose, a generous but unfeeling stepmother from New York, Noah pines, spending much of his time in the overheated basement laundry room that is Caroline’s minor fiefdom.

The magic of theatre is greatly enhanced by the imagination of the creative team behind this show. This is demonstrated perfectly in the opening scene when the washing machine and dryer are each portrayed twice, once by white goods and again by singing performers. The radio goes three better, getting its very own girl-band trio.

While the family does its business on an upper level, Rose and Noah commune unhappily without ever expressing the underlying support that each gives the other, even if it might not quite reach the level of love.

The catalyst for the main drama comes when Rose decides to punish slapdash Noah, who repeatedly leaves small change in his trousers, which Caroline then has to collect and return.

Rose’s solution is to order Caroline to keep the change. While this seems simultaneously educational for one party and charitable for the other, it causes untold trouble, particularly as the Civil Rights movement begins to rise up, partly fuelled by the assassination of John F Kennedy.

The unrest is best represented by Caroline’s spirited teenage daughter Emmie, strongly portrayed and sung by Abiona Omonua. She is the herald of a younger generation that no longer wishes to put up with what is effectively modern slavery, wishing to escape to a new, better life.

While the storyline is constantly intriguing and challenging, the music from Jeanine Tesori adds an additional dimension. It is probably at its strongest when Sharon D Clarke and others belt out soul numbers, the star peaking with “Lot’s Wife”, which will inevitably draw spontaneous applause each night. Other songs draw on the heritage of Broadway musicals, '60s girl bands and, when the Gellman family gets together, the spirit of Fiddler on the Roof.

While Sharon D Clarke is undoubtedly the star of the show, both as an actress and singer, she gets good support from the whole cast, with Teddy Kempner making a particular strong impression as Rose’s father, the communist-leaning Jewish patriarch Mr Stopnick.

These are the ingredients for a very powerful, semi-autobiographical work that simultaneously addresses the sensitivities felt by the characters and the wider political context that has led them to their current status, uncertain of what the future might hold. This might sound strong stuff for a musical but it works.

Philip Fisher