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The West End is currently sporting twenty-one musicals of all shapes, styles and sizes. High on my list of prospective openings has been the NT’s new production of Caroline, Or Change in the Lyttelton Theatre.
What singles this show out is the prospect of American playwright, Tony Kushner, acting as librettist for this through-composed, 1960s-set, civil rights-themed show. This is the same Tony Kushner who penned that classic of Modern American Drama, Angels in America, which epically dramatized moral, social and cultural diversity in America towards the end of the last Millennium.
American Musical Theatre has always struggled with the race question, especially when it comes to portrayals of African-Americans. The West End is currently bracing itself for all the usual debate that a new production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess can generate. America’s first home-grown Grand Opera, spawned by the Jewish King of Tin Pan Ally, is either a tune-filled piece peopled with squalid stereotypes or a gritty, anti-sentimental portrait of the deprived lives of poor Negroes in 1930s America. That particular argument is set to run and run.
In more recent years Broadway gave great acclaim to Stephen Flaherty’s Ragtime, which tackled the conflict between blacks and whites head on. But this story was set in the early 1900s and so had the space of a hundred years distance to lessen the bite of the issues presented.
Caroline, Or Change is, of course, set in 1963 at the time of JFK’s assassination and at the height of the activities of the American Civil Rights Movement, a time period well within living memory and bristling with contemporary relevance.
Caroline, Or Change has a very slight story. Caroline Thibodeaux, the maid to the Jewish Gellman family in Lake Charles, Louisiana, lives out her stunted working life in the Gellman’s basement room with the washing machine, radio and tumble dryer. Noah Gellman, the young son of the house, has a habit of leaving loose change in his trouser pockets when dumping them in the laundry basket. Every wash day Caroline collects this change in the bleach cup ready for Noah to re-claim.
Noah’s new step-mom, Rose, in an attempt to make friends with her inherited Negro maid and to teach her stepson the value of money, decides that Caroline can keep for herself and her family any change that is found in the dirty laundry. This tiny act of hopeful kindness has far-reaching repercussions for the families of both the maid and her employers.
This image of loose change literally changing lives is an important one in the fabric of this show. But with two hours of stage time to fill it does seem to become a little thinly stretched and the shock of its initial resonance is long gone by the finale.
Musically, the piece is very diverse with Jeanine Tesori’s music covering all the bases between Gospel, Motown and The Supremes, Lyric Opera and Jewish klezmer. This is not a musical with big numbers and instantly hummable, memorable melodies à la Jerry Herman or Rodgers and Hammerstein and that is what is most refreshing about Caroline, Or Change. But it is also the thing which robs the piece of some of its dramatic oomph. The first half particularly suffers from flatness as the small plot seems to take an absolute age to get going while the music never quite catches fire in the minds and toes of the audience.
The choppier second act ups the dramatic and musical stakes greatly with a wonderful set-piece based around the Gellman’s attempt at a cheery Chanukah dinner, which is ruined by their own internal tensions and those external racial ones brought in by the hired help. The right note of forced and false jollity is beautifully caught in the lilt of Tesori’s slightly hollow-sounding klezmer party music, with its virtuoso scored clarinet solos skillfully supplied by Steve Pierce in the pit.
Another stumbling block for this show’s dramatic thrust is the clarity of the words being sung. Sadly, on the night I saw the show the sound quality in the auditorium was not good. It is hard to say if the fault lies with the sound system or the diction of the singers but there were too many times in this show when the actual lyrics were completely undecipherable. These sections of mushy sound were mostly in the more turbulent and complex sections of vocal scoring but I would be lying if I said that all of the solo singing was as clear as it needed to be.
Before I went home I sneaked a look at the text of the show so I could work out what I had been missing lyrically and it does seem that Kushner’s contribution to the evening is being slightly undervalued. His lyrics are clear and packed with concise but knotty images which greatly illuminate the inner-world of his characters in deft and swift strokes. The fact that Lyttelton audiences are not hearing more of them is a terrible shame.
The show’s leading lady is American singer Tonya Pinkins who has played the role of Caroline from the first workshops to this, its latest London life. Pinkins has an astounding voice which can easily deal with the more elaborate and vocally out-going sections of the role. Her real power lay in the quieter corners of Caroline. Her ability to colour a scarcely voiced vocal line provided the evening with some of its most moving and lethal moments.
On the whole the British cast members are still not quite playing in the same league as Pinkins but then her three-year advantage of previous performances does give her quite a head start. The exception to this is Anna Francolini who turns in quite a performance as Rose Stopnick Gellman. This role is more staccato than lyrical yet she manages to wrestle out some much-needed sympathy for this well-meaning but misguided woman.
Caroline, Or Change does not really live up to the hype of its multi-award winning past, which is a great pity. I had hoped that it would be a musical that bravely broke new ground. It tries to do this and it should be applauded for its attempt, but it does not quite manage to pull off the needed transformation. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!
Jack Hughes @ 2006
Originally published on R&V on 28-10-06
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