January 01, 2007

Caroline, or Change, National Theatre

Kushner’s musical makes for a refreshing Change

As I listen to Tonya Pinkins’s Caroline wading her way through the show’s opening number about putting laundry in the washing machine, and three glittery girls croon over the tumble-dryer, I begin to doubt if this show can actually go anywhere and if, indeed, I’ve come to the right show.

I had understood that Tony Kushner had set his musical in Louisiana at the time of the Kennedy assassination and black Civil Rights movement in America. Exciting stuff and pretty daunting material to cram into one musical, though he had managed to deal with AIDs in his two parts of Angels in America. Kushner here, however, seems to have stubbornly put his hands over his ears to the political reverberations and taken peaceful refuge in the domesticity of Caroline, or Change. Consequently, we get a somewhat sullen maid with an apparent chip on her shoulder, singing to herself in a basement about getting her laundry in the dryer.

So far, it seems that I’m giving this show at the National, which won Best New Musical, a bad press. On the contrary, I have a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Tony Kushner has deliberately blocked out a lot of the politics of the time just as Caroline the maid tries to block out the radically changing times from her own life. So, we all sit together in obstinate defiance, in a cramped basement, concentrating solely on the loose change which Noah, the young boy of the household, leaves accidentally in his pockets (hence, the double-meaning in the title).

The show has an entirely sung-through score which means that much of it just seems downright bizarre. Whilst Italian opera can pull of the most mundane of lyrics in recitative on account of its florid language, here nothing can be disguised. “No-ah, you shouldn’t leeeeeeave change in your po-ckets.” You find yourself singing your way through interval conversations. “Yes, I think’s it’s veeeeery good, do-n’t yooooou?”

Nevertheless, the arias (if we can call them that in this context) are often pure beauty and there are ensemble numbers whose stirring rhythms make your stomach feel like the washing machine on stage. All the cast appear to have barrel-like lungs, and some vocal highlights come from Clive Rowe (whose one song as the Bus Driver cannot help but remind us of Paul Robeson’s Ol’ Man River) and also from Malinda Parris as, yes, you guessed it, the Washing Machine. Even the young scrawny Noah, the only white member of the cast, holds his own against these full-blooded gospel tones.

There is something heart-warmingly home-spun about this musical without anything being the least bit ropey. Perhaps it’s the three glamorous radio singers who narrate the show, popping up at the most ill-fitting moments with their deliciously crunchy close-harmonies. Or perhaps it’s the simplicity of the set which interlocks like a neat five-piece jigsaw, illuminated at the back by a huge, milky orb, from which Angela M Caesar sings as the very voluptuous Moon.

I am not entirely sure why Tonya Pinkins won Best Actress for her Caroline. I find her just that little bit too consistently grumpy and question why Noah has such a devout affection for her, like an undiscriminating, loyal puppy. Even her voice betrays signs of the show’s closing week, with very telling cracks.

Generally though, this is an extremely innovative contribution to the library of musicals (although I can’t see it being put on much because of the vocal demands on the cast). Just don’t go expecting a political commentary on 1960s black America. You won’t get it, but you’ll surely enough be an expert at working washing machines.


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