Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Aug 23 – Sep 21, 2019
Book: Tony Kushner
Music: Jeanine Tesori
Lyrics: Tony Kushner
Director: Mitchell Butel
Cast: Nkechi Anele, Andrew Cutcliffe, Alexandra Fricot, Amy Hack, Emily Havea, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Genevieve Lemon, Ruva Ngwenya, Elenoa Rokobaro, Elijah Williams and Ryan Yeates
Images by Phil Erbacher
Caroline works in the basement of the Gellman household, washing and drying clothing in the stifling heat of Louisiana, 1963. Eight year-old Noah Gellman had recently lost his mother, and the Jewish boy is forming a fixation on his African-American cleaning lady, the intensity of which is amplified by his stepmother’s decision to have Caroline keep any money that the child may forget to remove from his pockets, before sending them to get laundered. Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, Or Change is set during the peak of America’s civil rights movement, and although political marches and demonstrations are occurring far away, a distinct sense of resistance is beginning to take hold in the Gellman basement.
The material is poetic, and operatic. Often darkly humorous, Caroline, Or Change is an unconventional musical that does not rely on catchy melodies or cheap sentimentality, to sustain our interest. It intrigues with its powerful narrative, and its two very fascinating central characters. Directed by Mitchell Butel, many of the writing’s deeper resonances can seem lost in the cacophonous renderings of the musical format, but the show’s highly polished look and sound proves seductive, and along with some truly outstanding performances, we are kept absolutely enthralled.
Set design by Simon Greer is wonderfully evocative, and with four tiers of performing space, the small stage is quite miraculously expanded to accommodate the complex spatial requirements of the text. Lights by Alexander Berlage are romantic and lyrical, yet effective in providing dramatic punctuation whenever required. Anthony Lorenz’s sound design is excellent, able to make cohesive, and pleasurable, the multifarious dimensions emanating from singers and instruments.
Elenoa Rokobaro brings her phenomenal voice to Caroline, with a quality of singing that is impressive by any barometer of assessment. Her creation is an appropriately stoic personality, who gradually unravels, for a sophisticated and dignified depiction of resilient blackness. Ryan Yeates is a compelling Noah, technically precise but also emotionally authentic, almost effortless in his passionate expressions of a child discovering the harsh realities of existence. Rose, the stepmother, is played by an exuberant Amy Hack, whose faultless comedy is hugely gratifying, in this otherwise despondent tale. Ruva Ngwenya is a scene-stealer in her various parts, whether presenting herself as soul chanteuse or opera diva, we revel in all that she delivers.
The show ends on a note of hope, with Caroline looking to the future for solace and salvation. More than 50 years have past, and although there is comfort to be found in the strides that have no doubt been taken, there is clearly a long way yet to go, before Martin Luther King’s dream can be fully realised. In the progress towards equality, there are always those who will fight back against what is right. It seems today, that those who are wrong, are gaining momentum in their deplorable efforts to bring regression to how our lives are structured. The Gellmans look on the surface to be good people, but their inability and refusal to make things better for their wider community, is a problem that many of us have inherited and continue to persist with.