When Caroline, Or Change opened on Broadway in 2003, it received six Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book, Best Director and Best Actress. The production opened last night in London at the National's Lyttelton theatre, with the same director (George C Wolfe) and leading lady (Tonya Pinkins). Matthew Amer attended the press night.
"Nothing ever happen" are the first words sung by run down maid Caroline in the National Theatre's new musical. They're quite prophetic, as not a lot does happen, Tony Kushner's book is more a snapshot of a time than a heavily plotted story, and captures the emotions and feelings of a collection of connected individuals.
Set in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1963, Caroline is the black maid to a Jewish family. She has been a maid for as long as she can remember and scrapes a living to care for her children. But times are changing, and the civil rights movement is picking up pace. Caroline's daughter wants more from her life than servitude, but for Caroline, change brings fear. Her solace comes from inanimate objects, the washing machine, radio and dryer, her company in the basement.
Noah Gellman and his father Stuart are dealing with the loss of a wife and mother. Noah finds safety and a sense of stasis with Caroline, Stuart finds it in his music. Rose, Stuart's new wife, is trying to cope with a stepson who doesn't want to know her, a husband who is withdrawn, and the move from New York to the Deep South.
Jeanine Tesori's score is a melting pot of influences, each tune a reflection of the singer. The Radio, played by Ramona Keller, Nataylia Roni and Joy Malcolm, is a gold lamé-wrapped Supremes-style girl band with the rhythms and harmonies of Motown. Angela M Caesar’s Moon looks over proceedings with an operatic stateliness. Stuart Gellman's (Richard Henders) clarinet playing has Jewish folk tones at its heart. Clive Rowe rumbles threateningly as the forceful Dryer and emits tones of purity as the Bus, sadly proclaiming the death of JFK.
Tonya Pinkins, who was Tony-nominated for her portrayal of Caroline on Broadway, is moody and broody, almost fearing to crack a smile as the maid stranded in a world she can't or won't escape. The blues flows through her songs like muddy water.
Riccardo Hernández's set is often disparate and in pieces – a lifted bed here, steps down to the basement there – serving to accentuate the difference between each character. Yet at the end of it all, Caroline, Or Change reflects not just individual challenges, but the sense of change that Kushner himself lived through in 1960s America. You leave with the feeling those first three words might just be proved wrong.