Tony Kushner may be best known for his seminal Angels In America, while Jeanine Tesori’s Fun Home has garnered critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, most recently at The Young Vic. So when they pair up, the result is of course an out of the ordinary musical bursting with originality; Caroline, Or Change, has transferred from the Hampstead Theatre to the West End’s Playhouse Theatre.
The musical focuses on the titular character of Caroline, a black maid in the employment of a Jewish household around the time of JFK’s assassination. The father, Mr Gellman, has recently been widowed and his new wife is struggling to engage with her new step-son, Noah. Her behaviour towards Caroline is friendly and welcoming, but the maid earning thirty dollars a week doesn’t neccessarily take this at face value, instead consumed by her own personal struggles, and the struggles of black people across America at the time.
The new Mrs Gellman, part recognising Caroline’s predicament, part wanting to be a mother, insists that any loose change left in the pockets of Noah’s laundry is Caroline’s to keep. Caroline is initially reluctant to take money from a child, but soon realises just how far a quarter can go at the dime store. Noah too, treats it like a game or experiment, teasing Caroline by deliberately leaving greater amounts in his trouser pockets, just to see how far she will go. But when he accidentally forgets about a twenty dollar bill, it unleashes an ethical conundrum, and exposes racial attitudes.
To say Caroline, Or Change is a multi-layered piece of theatre would be an understatement to say the least. The two act musical boasts fifty-three musical numbers, with Kushner providing the lyrics to Tesori’s music. Those fifty-plus numbers manage to encompass almost every genre imaginable, weaving back and forth like Caroline’s vacuum cleaner across a thick piled carpet. Almost every number carries on from the last, often in rapid succession, making it almost impossible to pick a stand-out song, but the overall score is rich and diverse.
Despite such a complicated plot, and various other sub-plots, the first act is almost entirely consumed by setting up the premise, as Caroline does the laundry we are introduced to each character and their various relationships and motivations. Come the interval, this meant a few grumblings from the audience in the bar, unsure whether the plot was going anywhere. Of course it does, and director Michael Longhurst, moves the second act at a much quicker pace.
Also, in Kushner style, nothing is really quite what it seems with Caroline singing with her washing machine (Me’Sha Bryan adorned in plastic bubbles), dryer (Ako Mitchell as the devil) and the moon (Angela Caesar suspended in a mid-air bauble). There are backing singers too, with aerials protruding from the tops of their heads, they represent Caroline’s radio. It seems unnecessary at times, as there are enough richly designed characters to fill several musicals over.
What can’t be overlooked is Sharon D. Clarke’s masterful performance as Caroline, her performance is one of those rare West End treats that should not be missed under any circumstances. She navigates the various musical styles with ease, while belting out some dramatic ballads with the upmost power and passion.
Caroline, Or Change is undoubtedly in a class of its own, bringing a beautifully crafted story with a wealth of musical support to the West End. Ultimately some traditional musical fans may feel a little short changed, as this doesn’t so much break the mould but smashes it to pieces, but those willing to embrace the extraordinary will reap the rewards.