REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★

Australian die-hard musical theatre fans have had a long wait to see a local professional production of Caroline, or Change. After an Off-Broadway premiere at New York’s Public Theatre in 2003, George C. Wolfe’s original production went to Broadway in 2004 and picked up six Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical. In 2006, the show went to London and won the prestigious Olivier Award for Best New Musical.

Finally, in 2019, Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co has produced the Australian professional premiere, directed by Mitchell Butel. It’s a production that proves that the wait was worth it and that further consolidates the Hayes’ integral place in our musical theatre landscape.

With a book and lyrics by Tony Kushner (best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning classic Angels in America) and music by Jeanine Tesori (the composer of the exceptional Fun Home), Caroline, or Change is a through-sung piece set in 1963 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Caroline Thibodeaux (Elenoa Rokobaro) is a hard-headed, African-American maid working for a middle-class Jewish family, the Gellmans. She’s been cleaning homes for 22 years and is a single parent of four children. Struggling to stay afloat, most of her time is now spent laundering clothes in the Gellmans’ basement. In the world outside, the civil rights movement continues its nonviolent but powerful battle against racial segregation and discrimination, with Martin Luther King Jr as one of its loudest voices.

The Gellman family, meanwhile, is dysfunctional. Eight-year-old Noah (Ryan Yeates) is an anxious child, who recently lost his mother to cancer. His father, Stuart, is a professional clarinet player who has remarried but remains very much in mourning for his late wife. Noah strongly dislikes his new stepmother, Rose (Amy Hack), but she is far from being a wicked stepmother. Well-meaning and kind, Rose is apprehensive about her new role in the Gellman household and the state of her relationship with Noah.

Rose is especially concerned about Noah’s habit of leaving money in his clothing pockets. She tells Caroline she can keep any change she finds when laundering Noah’s clothes. Caroline immediately rebukes the suggestion, but there are children at home whose welfare she must consider; children to whom loose change could mean a great deal more than it does to Noah. And, at the same time, the political climate looks set to bring more profound change to the lives of Caroline and her children, but as unhappy as she is with her current circumstances, is Caroline willing to greet the winds of change with open arms?

Caroline, or Change is a wonderfully original piece of musical theatre. Anchored by a charged story of African American oppression, Tesori’s score skilfully melds a number of styles, including the blues, gospel and Jewish folk music, while Kushner’s lyrics lay out a story that is absorbing, stimulating and moving. And while it has its fair share of more orthodox musical drama, it’s unconventional too – in the course of events, the washing machine, the dryer, the radio, the bus and the moon are characters in their own right. The result is a memorable musical that deserves to be seen, and it’s fortunate for us that the Hayes exists to provide a vehicle for shows like Caroline, or Change to be so successfully realised on Australian stages.

Butel’s production is polished and well scaled for this theatre. Set designer Simon Greer has created a thoughtful and highly functional depiction of the Gellman home that locates us in a soporific area of America’s Deep South. That’s also the result of Alexander Berlage’s lighting, which evokes a heightened sense of mood and temperature, and Melanie Liertz’s costumes. Musical director Lucy Bermingham leads a group of five musicians (Abi McCunn, Alysa Portelli, Konrad Ball, Michael Napoli and Samantha Greer) who ably reproduce Tesori’s musically intricate score, and Yvette Lee’s choreography is largely simple, as is appropriate for this chamber musical.

Leading the cast in the central role of Caroline, Rokobaro delivers one of the finest performances of 2019. Her nuanced portrayal of the physically and emotionally tired maid matches precisely the woman intimated by Kusher’s lyrics. Rokobaro’s Caroline is serious and pragmatic, governed entirely by her sense of duty, but also frightened by the prospect of any real upheaval of the status quo. Vocally, Rokobaro sings the role as well as anyone could do; she demonstrates power and incredible control, and her unwaveringly soulful delivery ensures she’s never out of character for a beat.

Yeates is perfectly cast as the restless and troubled Noah Gellman, strong both in acting and in voice. Hack provides another highlight with her sympathetic portrayal of the house’s new matriarch, who feels out of place in her new surroundings. Emily Havea, Ruva and Alexandra Fricot are great assets to this production in a number of guises, while Anele’s performance as Caroline’s oldest daughter has the right balance of enthusiasm and indignation to convince us that she’s one who can propel the arrival of change.

Caroline, or Change is a beautiful musical theatre work. Saddening but uplifting, it reminds us that even when change is immensely positive, it’s rarely easy.

Photos by: Phillip Erbacher

CAROLINE, OR CHANGESEASON DETAILS

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point
Season: Until 28 September 2019
Times: Mon 6.30pm | Tues – Sat 7.30pm | Wed 1.00pm | Sat 2.00pm
Price: $60-$75, concessions $55-65
Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au | (02) 8065 7337

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