Here is a musical that will not settle; a musical that strives for change but worries deeply about how that change might come about. Here’s a musical that cherishes the past, tradition and family, but also urges us to forget the past, even forget our family, if we are to have any hope of moving forward. Here is a musical that loves music: jazz, blues, classical, klezmer, pop, whatever works best in the moment. Here is – you lucky, lucky people – Caroline, or Change.
How best to describe this singular work? It’s a musical, an opera, and has even been coined a thopera – let’s just call it a stunning tapestry of sound. The entire story is sung through, with a book by Tony Kushner (his lyrics are pared back but super smart) and a rich and roaming score from Jeanine Tesori, breathlessly variable yet brilliantly self-contained. It’s a musical that never stops moving, as if the music itself is wildly casting about for answers – anxious to find that defining beat or musical style that might stretch across the racial, religious and generational divides and finally bring everyone together.
The entire company is inspired and, although this musical first played at the National Theatre in 2006, this production (transferring from Chichester) feels definitive, effortlessly modern yet absolutely in sync with the original book and score. Michael Longhurst directs with exceptional style and control, yet there’s raw and untamed emotion too. Sharon D. Clarke turns in a performance of uncanny strength and depth as Caroline, the black maid who continues to work tirelessly in the Gellmans’ basement, despite the change that rumbles outside in 1960s Louisiana.
Fly Davis’s set is practical (an absolute must in the relatively small Hampstead Theatre), quirky and distinctive, defiantly ugly but with flashes of magic and wonder. The stage is divided into upstairs (where the Gellmans live and sing) and downstairs – Caroline’s domain, also shared with a singing washing machine, dryer and radio. The set is also split down the middle – a hole right at the heart of things – and flooded with madcap costumes, which often are just gleefully silly (the singing washing machine is played by an actress dressed in a silver bubble vest) but occasionally beautiful and awe-inspiring, touched with a mythical timeless grace (mention must go to a dazzling floating moon).
There’s invention and variety and depth at every turn: characters that constantly surprise us, scenes that suddenly swerve in bold new directions, audacious visual flourishes (in particular: a stunning singing bus) and a score that slides between different genres with spectacular ease and skill. Sometimes Caroline, or Change is almost a little too good. The first half is stuffed full with intriguing and complicated ideas, characters, visuals and quirks and is perhaps a little too concerned with singing appliances and surprising musical riffs, and not quite concerned enough with the real heart of the story.
But then the second half kicks off and the show evolves into a musical of exceptional depth, variety and purpose. Clashes that have been subtly playing out in the first half begin to clarify and deepen. In particular, the struggle that each new generation faces to understand, or learn from the generation before, becomes painfully clear. Caroline and her daughter Emmie (Abiona Omanua – such fire and such tenderness) come to blows. Emmie is hungry for change and ready to fight for it and cannot understand her mother’s seemingly submissive stance. Emmie wants change right now and cannot see that Caroline is part of that change, her tired steps offering Emmie the chance to take one angry leap forward.
Whilst Emmie and Caroline fight in the kitchen at the side of the stage, a liberal debate unfolds at the dining table, centre. It’s Chanukah and Mr Stopnick is hungry for lively conversation. He gives his grandson Noah a twenty dollar bill but, before Noah can grab it, Stopnick urges his grandson to consider the suffering this bill represents. With every move up the ladder, he tells his grandson, someone else must shuffle down. There’s a constant give and take about Caroline, or Change that keeps it stumbling forward, defiant and determined one minute, broken and tentative the next.
The clashes between the generations and across racial divides continue to open out, asking seriously difficult questions in such clear, clever and moving ways. Beneath these impossible questions rumbles Tesori’s teasing score (harmonious and simple one minute, clashing and ugly the next), and Kushner’s simple but truthful lyrics. Stopnick continues to push his arguments at the dinner table. He insists that violence must always be a part of any meaningful revolution: “…we have learned/ non-violence will get you burned.”
This is the lesson that Stopnick has gleaned from his family’s history. But these are not the lessons that Caroline’s family history has imparted. When Caroline comes to blows with young Noah Gellman – and the divide between old and young, black and white opens out again – Caroline is appalled by the angry person she has become. She sings: “Don’t let my sorrow make evil of me” – a pure, simple melody, cutting through an endless cycle of violence and pain.
Children play a hugely significant role in Caroline, or Change and take on more and more meaning and prominence as the score unfurls. Young Noah Gellman (Charlie Gallacher does so well not to make his role either cutesy or hateful) is a crucial part of the story and his solos – clean and pure and very simple – point to the isolation that each new generation experiences, and the great responsibility that every child feels to find his own path and distinct voice.
Caroline’s children – daughter Emmie and sons Jackie and Joe – share a brilliant song, buoyed by cheeky choreography from Ann Yee and injected with such energy and hope. But it’s a deeply twisted song too, borne out of sorrow, and overlooked by a cynically glinting moon that spews money onto the ground below. There’s no clear beacon of hope in Caroline, or Change, no clean through-line or obvious path to progress. Even when Caroline determines to change – and it is with these closing songs that Sharon D. Clarke floors us with a sudden opening of her hardened heart – it is a painful resolution.
With every step forward, comes an inevitable letting go. One person’s progress will mean somebody else’s loss. “Cha-aa-aaange”, sings Caroline, as she slowly slides up the scale, reaching to the very top.
Caroline, or Change is at the Hampstead Theatre until April 21st. For more details, click here.