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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Caroline, or Change
Lyttelton Theatre Autumn-Winter 2006

Coming from New York, bearing all the awards available, this musical drama by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori is excellent but may not, I suspect, seem quite so impressive to British audiences.

Its subject is race relations in the American South in the 1960s, a theme and era that resonate powerfully in the American consciousness, and much of the play's power is borrowed. Seen from the outside, as it were, it may seem thinner and more evidently contrived than it did in the American context.

The title character is the black maid employed by a liberal Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana, and the plot is generated when the lady of the house, wishing to teach her stepson a lesson, says that Caroline may keep any coins he leaves in his clothes in the laundry.

Torn between resentment of what she takes as a clumsy attempt at charity and a real need for the extra dollar or so a week to provide for her own family, Caroline becomes aware in herself of a kind of Black Pride that she hadn't needed to address before.

(You might have spotted that the title contains a pun, 'change' referring both to alteration and coins. Tony Kushner's book and lyrics contain several examples of unforced and evocative word play. With a washing machine prominent, the word 'agitator' comes up, as does the fact that some of the action takes place in 'de basement'.)

Caroline's internal conflict is mirrored in the gaps she becomes aware of between her and a more ambitious friend, and between her and her daughter, a budding activist. And there are parallel divisions in the white family as well, all of them serving as microcosms of the larger social changes looming.

Kushner's book explores all these divisions sympathetically and without taking sides except to wish well to everyone. His mode is a kind of magical realism, with Caroline carrying on conversations in song with her washer, dryer and radio, as well as the moon, and with characters able to speak or sing to each other across time and space.

The dreamlike tone this mode establishes is clearly intentional, and is reinforced by George C. Wolfe's gentle and fluid direction, though it has the effect of softening all the edges of what might have been a tougher piece of theatre.

Jeanine Tesori's music may be disappointing, since much of the first act is in recitatif that repeatedly resists any temptation to burst out into melody. The second act is more tuneful, with several good songs, including the obligatory climactic soliloquy for Caroline.

Tonya Pinkins, from the New York cast, has made Caroline her own, fully embodying her conflicts and her passions. There are strong performances as well by Anna Francolini as her employer, Pippa Bennett-Warner as her daughter and (alternating with other boys) Jonny Weldon as the boy who feels closer to the maid than to his own family.

Like August Wilson's 'Fences', this play - and yes, you will think of it as a play with music, rather than a musical, even though it is almost completely sung through - sympathetically acknowledges the generation of black Americans who came just before the civil rights movement, who had quietly and painfully accomplished so much that they became instinctively conservative, fearing for their children who wanted more.

Its power is quiet but cumulative, though it remains to be seen whether it will touch London audiences as strongly as it did New Yorkers.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Caroline Or Change - National Theatre 2006