With a fantasia of an entirely different kind, but by the same writer (Tony Kushner), playing in the National Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of Caroline, Or Change is timely and instructive in a number of ways. It proves, if proof were needed, that immediately hum-hum-hummable tunes are not required for successful musical theatre, and that serious and difficult themes can be articulated with style and feeling if you adopt the musical form. It also proves that women, talented women, are the key to the success of every musical.
The Chichester Festival Theatre was well known, under Jonathan Church, for sparkling and thrilling revivals of well-known musicals, a number of which transferred to the West End. At Sheffield, Daniel Evans also successfully revived well-known musicals, albeit not with the same West End transfer strike rate. But where new musicals at Church’s Chichester were unadventurous, Evans’ Sheffield took greater risks with new musicals – Flowers For Mrs Harris and Everyone’s Talking About Jamie for instance.
Now ensconced at Chichester, Evans’ programming of Caroline, Or Change signals that a change of venue has not diminished his adventurous spirit. On any view of it, Caroline, Or Change is a difficult musical – Kushner’s book deals with racism, liberal condescension, civil rights, the Jewish perspective and shattered families slowly healing; the score from Jeanine Tesori is brilliantly evocative, if fiendishly difficult to master and only slightly less easy to absorb on first hearing; there are starkly realistic sections as well as wildly fantastical, almost magical ones and both are equally important in making the whole piece function and have lasting effect.
To include a revival of Caroline, Or Change so early in his tenure as Artistic Director at Chichester is both brave and smart : it will attract new audiences as well as new talent, and it makes it clear that the Evans’ Chichester Years will be challenging, not safe. Michael Longhurst’s production is now playing at the Minerva Theatre and it is a real treat. It sets the bar for musicals at Chichester under Evans suitably high, and it entertains as much as it provides insight and reflective distress.
Unlike his profoundly misguided production of Amadeus for the National, Longhurst approaches this musical with a sure hand and an eye to the illumination of text and score. Fly Davis’ set is attractive and clever, working briskly to establish the different social spheres of the two main families – the Jewish Gellmans and the Thibodeaux clan, a poor black family presided over by Caroline.
Davis’ set is divided in clever ways. The upper levels of the Gellman mansion are separated clearly from the hot basement where their maid, Caroline, does the washing. They above, she below, with no sense of equality. At the same time, the part of the Gellman house that contains young Noah’s bedroom separates from the part that contains his father and step-mother. Noah has not accepted his new step-mother, preferring to make a maternal target of Caroline.
The key to the surface drama involves Noah’s inability to remove change from his pocket before he discards his clothing for cleaning. Stepmother Rose tells Caroline she can keep the change she daily retrieves from Noah’s pockets before she cleans his clothes. Caroline resists at first – the notion is repulsive really. Rose should simply give Caroline a raise rather than taunt her with discarded, but not unwanted, cash. But, totally understandably, Caroline takes the money, with Noah’s complicity, and it changes her life and that of her children.
The crunch comes when Noah is given a big note as a present and then leaves it in his pocket. Caroline finds it before Noah realises and they argue over who is entitled to it. A friendship cracks forever.
Of course, the musical is not about the money. But it is about a particular time in America when change was on the move, and traditional ways were being challenged. It is also about class and the inability of white people to understand black folk without real effort and a genuine desire to understand. It’s about dreams too, the fragrant hopes that keep everyone alive. And, importantly, it is about dealing with grief and moving on, growing stronger and better.
There are not many musicals that feature characters such as The Moon, The Bus, The Radio, The Washing Machine or The Dryer – but this one does. Caroline, bored senseless doing the washing, loses herself in fantastical vistas, where inanimate objects come to life and communicate with her, add vibrancy to her life. Longhurst’s production makes the most out of these sequences and they are full of zest and joy.
Ako Mitchell is a sensationally sexy Dryer and, later, a sober, portentous Bus imparting news of that grassy knoll in Dallas in November 1963. He is superb. Angela Caesar is a sultry and sassy Moon and Me’sha Bryan quite delightful as the ebullient Washing Machine. The trio of Supremes-like entertainers who give life to the musical excess of the radio – Gloria Onitiri, Jennifer Saayeng, Keisha Amponsa Banson – are smart, glamorous and with it, grounding a clear sense of time with every hip swing.
In contrast to these wild and exuberant characters, the Gellmans seem dull and one dimensional. As they are. Alex Gaumond is terrific as the musician who has no idea how to help his lad recover from the loss of his mother. Withdrawn and a little vacant, Gaumond’s Stuart is truly tragic. Lauren Ward is slightly too irritatingly perky as Rose, but she comes into her own in Act Two and makes some memorable moments work to dazzling effect. Her tentative bonding with Charlie Gallacher’s extremely likeable and quite winning Noah is genuinely touching.
Gallagher captures Noah’s desolation and desperation perfectly, without playing on sentimentality. He articulates the frustrations of growing up in a changing landscape, where adults prove unreliable. At the same time, his ache for maternal affection is also clear, and his exchanges with Sharon D. Clarke’s Caroline are among the finest moments of the production.
Clarke is magnificently formidable as Caroline, brooking no foolishness, holding firm to her faith, and to the veneer of established propriety regular church going provides. She is full of righteous indignation, accumulated unfairness and high bench marks – with the result that three of her children show signs of rebellion, especially daughter Emmie, played with inspired brio by Abiona Omonua. When Clarke and Omonua are together, the electrification crackles and the singing is sensational.
As the two growing Thibodeaux lads, Jacke and Joe, James Gava and Josiah Choto bring out Caroline’s motherly instincts, firmly and, sometimes, kindly. But the sharpest side of Caroline is reserved for her sometime friend, Dotty, here given sharp life by Nicola Hughes.
The difficult relationships, the complex interactions, which sputter and coalesce against the background of the laundry basement and the change cup, are finely wrought here, for the most part exquisitely played and searingly true.
Tesori’s score helps punctuate this. The music is glowingly infectious, covering a wide range of styles, from Christmas carols to jazz, and evoking nostalgia and insight in equal measure. It is also characterful, fleshing out the hearts and minds of the families whose happiness is intertwined. There Is No God, Noah, Moon Trio, That Can’t Be, Caroline Takes My Money Home, I Hate The Bus, Sunday Morning, Lot’s Wife and Why Does Our House Have A Basement – all are remarkable numbers which leave an imprint on your heart and mind. Hope, fear and clarity all set to bracing melodies and erratic harmonic progressions. Like life, ours and the characters’, the score is rich and eclectic.
Musical director Nigel Lilley ensures the band gives first-rate support; the sounds they make are hot, sad or soulful as the occasion demands. Jack Knowles’ lighting is especially good, separating worlds and characters with different tones of light and marking out the fantasy sequences for ethereally charged colour spectacles. The production is a joy to behold and hear.
Caroline, Or Change is musical theatre at its most challenging, its most impressive. This may be Kushner’s most accessible work and certainly one of Tesori’s best scores. If Clarke could find a more multi-faceted approach to her role, this would be a perfect production. But she is too haughty too often, there are too many echoes of Ma Rainey to make her performance as astonishing as it should be. Not all of Caroline has been hardened in perpetuity.
This production made one wonder how long it would be before Caroline, Or Change returned to Broadway. Another vehicle for Audra McDonald? Yes!