Caroline, or Change is a musical of two quite different acts. The first had enjoyable parts but felt slow and left me feeling lukewarm. It was only during the second act that it shifted up a gear and an interesting show began to reveal itself. It became about much more than just an angry black woman in a low paid job, but a multi-layered insight into the feeling of change which rippled across America in the 1960s. It’s not your average feel-good musical but one that gets the brain ticking.
We’re in Louisiana. President Kennedy has been assassinated and the Civil Rights movement is growing. In Caroline, or Change, rather than get a sweeping overview of this pivotal time in US history, we get a snapshot of a small corner of America. More specifically, a Jewish household where Caroline (Sharon D Clarke), an African American maid works in a humid and isolated basement. She is divorced with four kids and struggles to get by on $30 a week. The plot starts to thicken when Caroline is told that she can keep whatever change she finds when doing the laundry. With this act, racial tensions which previously lay cool below surface begin to simmer.
At first, my main frustration was that this show took its dear time to set the scene. In the opening number, we are introduced to these singing and dancing inanimate objects including the Washing Machine, Radio and Tumble Dryer. It was not so clear to me what it all amounted to and I felt that these objects where overstaying their welcome on stage (especially anytime the opera singing moon came on).
The show continues at this leisurely pace when we meet the Gellmans, a fractured Jewish family who has lost their mother to cancer. The young son Noah (Aaron Gelkoff) has taken a strong liking to Caroline since his mother’s passing. This is much to the dismay of the father’s second wife, Rose Gellman (Lauren Ward) who struggles to make a connection with Noah. She, on the other hand, finds it difficult to communicate with Caroline.
I realised later on that the deliberately slow pace is strapping the audience in for the second half, where the story begins to heighten and these relationships become much more complex and intriguing.
Despite the mixed reviews I’ve seen, there seems to be fairly unanimous agreement that Sharon D Clarke gives an impressive performance. She creates a character with nuance rather than a stereotypically loud and sassy African American female. Caroline is a woman battling between remaining complicit in her ordeal or inviting in change, digesting the pain from her past and managing single parenthood. Her performance has such depth, power and is one of the best I’ve seen in the West End in a while.
The musical is a first-time collaboration between writer, Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and composer Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home). The combination of the measured pacing and the lively inanimate objects gives it a unique and unusual feel. The score is entirely sung through and has compelling songs such as ‘I Hate the Bus’ and ‘Lot’s Wife’. I’d recommend giving it a try if you’d like to see something thought-provoking.
Caroline, or Change is currently running at the Playhouse Theatre and booking until April 2019 at the time of writing.