Review: Caroline, or Change, Hayes Theatre Company, Sydney, Wednesday 28 August.
By Richie Black.
Amidst the turbulence and transformative energy of the ’60s Civil Rights Movement, Caroline is a black maid stuck working for a Jewish Louisiana family, raising four kids on a measly 30 bucks a week.
Her voice is angry and frustrated, sure, but it’s also defined by strength – which is compelling for Noah, her boss’s son. He’s recently lost his mother to cancer – and in such an apparently fragile world, Caroline’s stoicism is beguiling, perhaps heroic, for the young boy.
It’s an atypically downbeat set-up for a musical, but therein lies the power of Caroline, or Change’s refreshingly schmaltz-free take on (depressingly familiar) issues.
Now playing at the Hayes Theatre, the musical draws partly on the experiences of writer Tony Kushner (Angels in America), wading into the swamp of race relations with sure- footed intelligence and humanity.
Specifically, by paralleling the experience of Black and Jewish communities, it creates a nuanced perspective on the struggle for change, hinged on themes of identity and political revolution.
It also enables composer Jeanine Tesori to veer evocatively between musical styles, throwing everything from soul to Jewish klezmer into the mix with, like, chutzpah.
That the intellectual and artistic scope can be squeezed into the narrow confines of the Hayes Theatre is testament to the roll-call of creatives here.
Not only is the unlikely feat of bringing the deep south of the US to King Cross (whoops, sorry, Potts Point) achieved with bonus points, but the production also brings to life said nuances with great skill and clarity.
That can be ascribed somewhat to the atmospheric multi-tiered staging and deft use of lighting, which accounts for the script’s more abstract elements with style.
Kudos goes to the cast as well, notably Elenoa Rokobaro as the eponymous Caroline – who poignantly captures her character’s sadness, wisdom, power and, yes, flaws.
Amy Hack is also a standout as Noah’s stepmother Rose. Portraying the family interloper trying desperately to connect with both her stepson and her maid, Hack manages to do clumsy with great skill, thereby becoming one of the best examples of the musical’s sensitive, considered and (dare we say it) funny approaches to complicated realities.
Meanwhile, Ryan Yeates is superb as the young Noah – bringing maturity and poise to the role, thereby ensuring the musical’s complexities aren’t lost in any kind of hard-knock-life sentimentality.
And yet, of course, while all this collective brilliance plays out in the cosy confines of the Hayes Theatre, the spectre of contemporary racism continues to lurk in the ol’ zeitgeist. Why, you might ask, are we returning to the racial politics of the ’60s when we have the more recent outrages of Charlottesville (to take just one example) to contend with?
But then, Caroline, or Change, a musical entirely free of tidy conclusions, void of defiance-of-gravity or sun-will-come-out-tomorrow sentiments, is not just of the ’60s, but also of the now, because it suggests that the struggle for change is an everlasting one. And that the more things change, sadly, the more they can stay the same.
Caroline, or Change is showing at the Hayes Theatre, 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point until 21 September. Tickets ($55-$75) and information available at hayestheatre.com.au or (02) 8065 7337.