Caroline, Or Change
Tony Kushner wrote the book and lyrics for this powerful, surprising and unusual piece of musical theatre, first performed at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester and currently enjoying a transfer run at the Playhouse Theatre in London. It has all the political and personal complexity fans of his epic play 'Angels in America' will recognise. The collaboration with composer Jeanine Tesori works beautifully in bringing together a powerful story of race relations, change and hope in 1960s Louisiana.
We meet the Caroline of the title in the basement of the Gellman family home as she dutifully tends to her domestic duties. She is the black maid to a wealthy white Jewish family, played by Sharon D Clarke in a performance which has deservedly garnered her rave reviews. She has an effortless, soulful voice and her acting more than matches her singing talent. We connect with the moral crisis she experiences when she finds a 20 dollar bill in the trouser pocket of the Gellman son Noah (Isaac Forward in a charming and playful performance) and reflects on the difference it will make to the four children she is supporting alone on 30 dollars a month. If you thought musical theatre couldn't tackle serious themes of poverty and hardship, think again.
The serious messages are never rammed home, however, and this is ultimately a joyful few hours in the theatre. Expect a singing washing machine (Me'sha Bryan note perfect in a delightful transparent bubble costume), a radio personified in the form of a 'Supremes' style trio and a larger than life dryer. The moon (Angela Caesar) makes regular appearances too, floating in on a bubble.
It's difficult to sum up the wide-ranging themes of this master musical play but here goes: racism, power, politics, family, love, change, time, sacrifice, death, poverty, religion, war, desperation, courage, regret and abuse. And hope. Most of all hope. Despite the backdrop of JFK's assassination, the Civil Rights Movement and racial segregation, what shines through the songs, the poetry and the performances is hope for a better future. It felt like an important call at a time of walls, divisive politics and uncertainty. As Kushner notes, change is difficult, uneven and uncertain but also absolutely possible. An enriching production which leaves you reflecting on important ideas, smiling and feeling hopeful.
Caroline, Or Change is playing at the Playhouse Theatre in London until March 2nd 2019.