Veteran playwright Tony Kushner’s musical theatre debut is a little perplexing.
Ryan Yeates as Noah Gellman and Elenoa Rokobaro as Caroline Thibodeaux. Image: Phil Erbacher.
It is November 1963, and the USA is on a precipice: Kennedy has been shot, and the country is rumbling with the growing voice of a civil rights movement finding its feet. In Louisiana, the Jewish Gellman family’s eight-year old son Noah, who is heartbroken after the death of his mother and his father’s remarriage, shares a curious bond with the family’s maid, Caroline, an African American single mother of four.
Written by Tony Kushner – perhaps most famous for Angels in America – the story is loosely based on Kushner’s own memories of growing up in Louisiana. It is also Kushner’s first foray into music theatre and I think it shows. He teams up with composer Jeanine Tesori, who creates a score that attempts to mix a variety of genres including spirituals, blues, Motown, classical, Jewish klezmer and folk music.
You may rarely leave the theatre more perplexed. After 29 separately listed musical pieces in the first act and another 24 in the second, most in completely different styles, the score goes beyond eclectic and becomes quite confusing. No doubt it is intended to portray the diversity of the country and give each different character a unique voice, but it’s hard work for an audience. And the music is difficult. Even the obviously skilled singers of the cast struggled to make musical sense of it for the audience, and those less skilled often floundered to find pitch. The sound mix does nothing to balance the clash of some quite mismatched vocal tones. The piecemeal style is musically demanding, but often actually hinders our ability to connect with the story.
The story is set at a time of immense change, as the title would have us remember. But nothing much really does change in this somewhat dysfunctional world.
Maybe it is the subtle changes in people and their relationships that Kushner wants us to acknowledge – the beginnings, rather than the conclusions. Nevertheless, Caroline starts the show in a basement and ends up still there at the end, with a whole lot of grief in between. A story about a civil war statue is rather clumsily integrated, so it feels ‘grafted on’ and token. It’s ultimately a fairly unsatisfying journey to watch, and it’s difficult to know what Kushner and Tesori want us to take away from the piece.
Nevertheless, there are some real highlights to enjoy.
Andrew Cutcliffe makes the most of a rather thankless role as Noah’s Father – simple, sincere, and singing beautifully. His really is a lovely voice. Emily Havea plays Dotty with a quiet, honest focus, and is quite riveting to watch. But it is Amy Hack who steals the show as Noah’s stepmother Rose, finding a brittle touching truth amid her predominantly comic scripting. The role of 10-year-old Noah Gellman is shared by two young actors, Ryan Yeates, and newcomer Daniel Harris. We were treated to a charming performance by Yeates on opening night.
Elenoa Rokobaro has the title role of Caroline Thibodeaux. She has a gorgeous vocal tone, and a quiet focused power, but the direction rarely allows Rokobaro to break the fourth wall and let the audience engage with her character’s inner monologue. So the character ends up lacking light and shade, the production choosing to stay with the description of her ‘never smiling’ pretty much throughout the piece. We are left with a yearning for a greater variation to Caroline that is not quite dispelled even after the impressive passion and technical mastery that Rokobaro displays in the Lot’s Wife song.
That said, Caroline, or Change is an interesting and challenging work that Sydney audiences are unlikely to see staged frequently, so take the opportunity to experience a very different work of American music theatre at the recently renovated Hayes Theatre. Now with all new seats and bathrooms – not as frivolous a comment as you might be thinking – the venue is much improved, and it is heart-warming to see this theatre continue to grow in strength and support unique productions with wonderful talent and impressive production values.
2.5 stars out of 5 ★★☆
Caroline, or Change
Book & Lyrics by Tony Kushner
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Director: Mitchell Butel
Musical director: Lucy Bermingham
Choreographer: Yvette Lee
Set designer: Simon Greer
Costume designer: Melanie Liertz
Lighting designer: Alexander Berlage
Sound designer: Anthony Lorenz
Cast: Elenoa Rokobaro as Caroline, Nkechi Anele, Andrew Cutcliffe, Alexandra Fricot, Amy Hack, Daniel Harris, Emily Havea, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Genevieve Lemon, Ruva Ngwenya, Elijah Williams and Ryan Yeate
23 August-21 September 2019
Hayes Theatre, Potts Point NSW