For me, this was another Show That Got Away. I didn’t manage to see the original production of Caroline, or Change at the Public Theater in New York, or on Broadway. I was still living overseas when the Broadway production transferred to London for a run at the National. The morning the first iteration of this production – at the Chichester Festival Theatre‘s Minerva last year – went on sale, I was stuck on a train, and by the time I got somewhere with a data signal that didn’t keep dropping out there were no tickets left for any performance I could have attended. I booked for the Hampstead run about ten minutes after tickets went on sale; I’ve regretted missing the original production ever since, and I wasn’t going to miss this.
And having said all that, high expectations aren’t always the best thing to bring with you to the theatre… but this production surpassed them. Set in Lake Charles, Louisiana in late 1963, in the weeks between the Kennedy assassination and Chanukah, Tony Kushner‘s book and lyrics quietly set up a perfect storm: a confrontation between Caroline Thibodeaux, a dour, downtrodden, rigidly proud black maid, and her (Jewish) employer’s lonely, grieving eight-year-old son Noah, whose mother died of cancer the previous year, over money Noah carelessly left in his pockets in the laundry. The clash, when it finally comes two-thirds of the way through the second act, is vicious and wounding on both sides; the show offers a slow-burning, subtle examination of the ways people resist or embrace change, and while it doesn’t offer the kind of easy catharsis you get out of a blatant tearjerker like Miss Saigon, it’s a haunting, engrossing, thoroughly moving piece of writing, and Jeanine Tesori‘s music is often thrilling.
Essentially, the show is an opera (Kushner and Tesori both describe it as such in this production’s programme notes). It’s more or less through-sung with very little spoken dialogue, it’s through-composed with relatively few standalone songs, and while Tesori’s musical palette incorporates influences as diverse as klezmer and Motown, she blends her various ingredients into something distinctively her own, rather than supplying a series of pastiche numbers. Kushner’s libretto is remarkably self-effacing; he’s perfectly capable of using language to dazzle, but here the fireworks are mostly supplied by Tesori’s music, because this is a piece in which several of the central characters are, for various reasons, verbally inarticulate. Caroline, the maid at the heart of the show, doesn’t have the energy or the education to put the sense of deep longing that is all but tearing her apart into words. Instead, Tesori charts Caroline’s emotional state via music – the music she hears as well as the music she sings. Kushner and Tesori take the clever, whimsical step of anthropomorphising various inanimate objects as a means of giving us windows into their closed-up, tightly-wound central character’s emotional landscape. When Caroline does the laundry, the washer and dryer sing to her. She turns on the radio, and a girl-group appears. When she looks at the moon, the moon sings her deepest yearnings back to her. In lesser hands, this could easily seem ridiculous; here, it works beautifully, and adds significant richness to a piece that could easily have been two hours of unhappy people sniping at each other.
Michael Longhurst’s spare, lean production gets the (difficult) tone exactly right, and navigates the material’s difficult emotional landscape with exceptional clarity. There’s a single unit set, of course – this is a 325-seat theatre, not Broadway – but Fly Davis’s geometric-print 60s interior works well enough, and there’s a great deal of wit to her costumes for the appliances and the moon. There’s also a conductor and eleven musicians delivering the original orchestrations, which is not what you expect to see in a such a small theatre at ticket prices pitched significantly below what you’d pay in the West End. Those orchestrations, incidentally, are by Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert, and Buryl Red; inexcusably; they are not credited in the programme.
And in the title role, Sharon D. Clarke may well be giving the performance of her career. So, come to that, might Lauren Ward as Rose Stopnick Gellman, Noah’s fish-out-of-water new stepmother from New York. Clarke doesn’t quite burn through Tesori’s music the way Tonya Pinkins does on the Broadway cast recording, but when she does pull out all the stops, in the astonishing Lot’s Wife at the climax of the second act, she’s electrifying. Ward sings as beautifully as you’d expect, and makes Rose’s isolation almost as moving as Caroline’s. There’s a fine, assured performance from Aaron Gelkoff as the eight-year-old Noah, and the supporting performances are beyond criticism, with especially good work from Alastair Brookshaw as Noah’s still-grieving father, Teddy Kempner as Rose’s Marxist New Yorker father, who wishes the South’s black communities would rise up and reject the notion of nonviolent resistance, and from Angela Caesar as a gloriously-sung Moon. Abiona Omonua brings real fire to the role of Caroline’s ambitious, proto-activist daughter Emmie, who hates the bus, wants a car of her own, and knows (we discover in the final scene) a lot more than she’s let on about the disappearance of a statue of a Confederate soldier in downtown Lake Charles. This is a show that creeps up on you – it takes a while to get going, but I – ahem – must have had something in my eye for most of the second half of the second act.
The bottom line: the show is a masterpiece. That banner across the poster saying ‘sensational’ doesn’t quite do Michael Longhurst’s production or Sharon D. Clarke’s extraordinary performance justice. It’s transferring into the West End in November following sold-out runs at Chichester and Hampstead. Go and see it. Go and see it more than once. If you’ve already seen it, go and see it again (I will). It’s not the easiest musical, and if you’re expecting a song-and-dance show along the lines of Dreamgirls you’ll be disappointed. It’s worth the effort, though; if you like the kind of musical theatre where you don’t have to switch your brain off when the lights go down, this is about as good as it gets.