It only takes a few moments to realise that Caroline, or Change is going to be unlike any other musical I’ve seen before. As Caroline Thibodeaux (Elenoa Rokobaro), the black maid who works for the Gellman household, arrives for work and descends into the basement “under water” to do the laundry, The Radio takes on its own life and bursts into song in the form of a Supremes-like trio in sequinned frocks (Alexandra Fricot, Emily Havea and Ruva Ngwenya).
Elijah Williams and Elenoa Rokobaro. Photograph © Phil Erbacher
Then a James Brown-like figure starts voicing the thoughts of The Dryer (Elijah Williams), with The Washing Machine (Ngwenya) also getting into the swing. Later we will encounter a mournful Bus (Williams) and a swooning Moon (Ngwenya) – fantasy figures set against the very real world portrayed. It’s a quirky, inventive, surprising and beguiling device that works beautifully in the show.
Featuring music by Jeanine Tesori (Violet, Fun Home) and book and lyrics by Tony Kushner (Angels in America), Caroline, or Change was workshopped in 1992. It opened off-Broadway in 2003 then had a short Broadway season in 2004. It has since had a season at the Chichester Festival and in the West End.
Set in 1963, the musical – which Kushner has admitted is partly autobiographical – mostly takes place in the home of a white Jewish household in Louisiana. While the civil rights movement gathers force outside, the Gellman family employs divorced, 39-year-old Caroline as their maid for a measly $30 a week.
Father, Stuart Gellman (Andrew Cutcliffe) is a clarinettist and emotionally remote since the death of his bassoonist wife from cancer. Their eight-year-old son Noah (a role shared by Ryan Yeates and Daniel Harris) is lonely and unhappy having lost his mother, and doesn’t want a bar of Stuart’s new wife Rose Stopnick-Gellman (Amy Hack), who is struggling to fit in.
Rose decides that Noah must learn to value money and tells Caroline that she can take home any of the small change that Noah leaves in his pockets. Caroline is initially offended and puts the money in the bleach cup as she has customarily done. But she can’t help thinking of her children and the things they could buy with it.
The musical is very deft in the way it weaves the political background into the personal story, conveying the huge social change that is afoot with references to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the civil rights movement and the rise of Martin Luther King.
The music – which frequently uses a minor key – is full of surprises as Tesori combines gospel, blues and Motown, with klezmer, Christmas carols and America the Beautiful thrown in for good measure, while The Moon is sung in operatic soprano. It’s fascinating the way she fractures the score with different musical references and also interjects short monologues for Rose, all wonderfully performed by the six-piece band under Musical Director Lucy Bermingham.
Ryan Yeates and Elenoa Rokobaro. Photograph © Phil Erbacher
Mitchell Butel directs a thoughtful, eloquent production that never overplays things emotionally, staging it on a split set by Simon Greer, which includes the laundry in the basement, a living area, a balcony and Noah’s bedroom, with the moon hanging as a huge orb as if within the house. With costumes by Melanie Liertz and lighting by Alexander Berlage, the production feels authentically real and yet is also beautifully porous in its ability to embrace the flights of fantasy. Design-wise, it’s an incredibly clever use of the space and makes the small stage look bigger than ever.
Rokobaro is incredible as Caroline, giving a performance to be remembered for years to come. She captures Caroline’s weariness, pain and deep sadness, maintaining a beautiful stillness and hardly ever smiling even when Noah – who looks to her for affection – comes to light her cigarette each day. A flashback to her meeting with her husband, which shows her looking briefly joyous, is even more vivid when you know what is to follow. And when she sings Lot’s Wife towards the end she not only raises the roof but breaks your heart with her soulful rendition, leaving hardly a dry eye in the house.
Yeates who played Noah on opening night is also excellent as the lonely young boy, playing the large, crucial role with animated expression. Amy Hack does an impressive job as the no-nonsense, awkward Rose, who tries to do her best but can’t quite get things right. The moment of warmth between Rose and Noah at the end of the show is another incredibly moving moment. Nkechi Anele captures the youthful spirit of Caroline’s teenage daughter Emmie, who sees that change is coming and is determined to be part of making it happen. But all the cast – which also includes Genevieve Lemon as Stuart’s well-meaning mother, and Tony Llewellyn-Jones as Rose’s racist father – play their part.
At the end of the day though, it’s the magnificent Rokobaro you will never forget, while the musical itself is a breath of fresh air with an inventive structure that keeps you wondering what will happen next.
Caroline, or Change plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney until September 21