Following not one, but two recent acclaimed runs (first at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre in 2017, followed by a limited engagement at Hampstead Theatre earlier this year), Michael Longhurst’s production of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s musical Caroline, or Change now makes its mark on London’s West End, taking up residence at the Playhouse Theatre until next spring. Sharon D. Clarke reprises the role of Caroline Thibodeaux, making her long-awaited return to the West End – her recent stage roles have included Ma Rainey in the National Theatre’s revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Sonja in This Life at Southwark Playhouse. I went to review this on behalf of London Box Office during the show’s relatively long preview period.
Caroline Thibodeaux is a divorced maid who has been working for the Gellman family for quite some time, earning $30 a week for her back-breaking efforts. Every day, young Noah Gellman comes down to the basement where Caroline allows him to light her a cigarette each day; the boy is unhappy, as his mother has recently died of cancer and her best friend (Rose Stopnick) has married his father – try as she might, Rose just can’t win Noah round. After trying and failing to get Noah to remove money from his pockets before putting them in for washing, Rose insists that Caroline keeps any loose change she finds – to teach Noah the value of money, as well as ease her conscience over Caroline’s low pay. Meanwhile, the eldest of Caroline’s four children, Emmie, has revolutionary thoughts in mind (it is 1963 after all), but the news of President Kennedy’s assassination stops everyone in their tracks.
This is no ordinary musical. Whilst I do have my reservations about it being sung-through, as it doesn’t leave much of a pause for breath, it features an interesting combination of music genres: from Motown to gospel to Jewish folk music. This mix captures both the spirit and the culture of the time, and blends together pretty seamlessly. And it’s not just the musical style that intrigues, but who (or, more accurately, what) is singing a lot of the songs – because a lot of the time the singing comes from inanimate objects, such as the washing machine and the moon. Though it may appear slightly odd initially, it’s a really smart move to have backing singers representing items that would naturally be in the room; it stretches the imagination in a different way to many musicals, where voices might either be heard from offstage, or people just appear on the stage for the big number. It’s definitely a quirkiness that sets Caroline, or Change apart.
It feels more important than ever to be producing shows that deal with topics like this – with many countries starting to lurch towards the far right, and intolerance back on the rise (not that it has ever gone away completely), it can act as a reminder of the terrible actions committed in the past, as well as be a source of hope for change and peace. It’s vital to keep telling uncomfortable truths, and also represent a wide range of stories on our stages.
This show boasts a wealth of talented performers, with Keisha Amponsa Banson, Dujonna Gift-Simms & Tanisha Spring making a superb trio as the Motown-influenced Radio, Angela Carter’s angelic vocal performance as The Moon, and Me’sha Bryan on top form as The Washing Machine. Ako Mitchell is a menacing presence as The Dryer, showcasing his unique vocals. Sharon D. Clarke makes the role of Caroline Thibodeaux well and truly her own – you sense her weariness and resignation at the way her life has turned out, while still getting the hint that she dreams of something more, as she relishes the chance to treat her children when the opportunity arises. Her performance of Lot’s Wife towards the end of the second act is a true show-stopping moment, and an example of musical theatre at its very best.
It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, with the constant stream of music and the unusual supporting ‘characters’, but if you can open your mind to something a bit different then I think you’ll be well rewarded with this show.
My verdict? An incredibly timely arrival in the West End of this acclaimed production, featuring some knockout vocal performances – this is no ordinary musical.
Caroline, or Change runs at the Playhouse Theatre until 6 April 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office. A limited number of £5 seats are available to patrons aged 16-25 – these must be bought in person at the box office.
Post courtesy of London Box Office: https://www.londonboxoffice.co.uk/