Londonist went to see Caroline, or Change at the National Theatre — Happy 30th N.T.! — on Monday night and was slightly less entranced than the rest of the London critics. If it's a rave you seek, you can find plenty over at What's On Stage's round-up.
While we appreciated the human elements of Tony Kushner's tale of Caroline, an African-American maid to a Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana, and Jeanine Tesori's inventive motown/gospel/klesmer mash-up of a score, we found the musical's inclusion of a Greek chorus of inanimate objects — including a washing machine, bus and radio — a little too, um, Beauty and Beast for our tastes.
That said, we must admit that the Dryer, spun by actor Clive Rowe, was really excellent. More of him would have been, in the parlance of Paris, hot. May we suggest to Kushner a civil rights-themed sequel focusing entirely on this character? Drying Miss Daisy, perhaps?
The crux of Caroline, or Change is that Caroline (Tony winner Tonya Pinkins from the original New York production) has been told by her new boss Rose (the scene-stealing Anna Francolini) that she can now keep any change left in the trouser pockets of Rose's young, newly motherless step-son Noah — on Monday played by Greg Bernstein, who alternates with two other boys. Since Caroline earns a mere $30 a week, she goes along with the patronizing plan despite her qualms about getting a raise from the pockets of an absent-minded eight-year-old.
The genius of Kushner's sung-through musical is that out of this seemingly small dilemma, the changing climate of the American South circa 1963 is brought into focus on stage. The problem with the show is that the real drama is delayed until the second act, resulting in what must be the least suspenseful Act I finale in opera history: Caroline has decided to keep the change; Noah is actually happy about this; Caroline's children are excited by the extra cash and perform an elaborate dance. Curtain! WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT!?!
Thankfully, things ramp up after the interval and the play reaches its potential in a devastating Chanukah dinner scene. Also thankfully, there is no singing/dancing Menorah — the inanimate objects, for the most part, disappear in the second half.
Our final quibble lies with the occasionally terrible American accents. We'll excuse the younger cast members for slipping into their native vowels, but the older actor Ian Lavender has no excuse for letting Grandpa Gellman's accent start in Moscow and work its way west to Bristol, only occasionally coming anywhere near Jewish New York.
Caroline, Or Change continues at the National Theatre until January 4. Tickets are £22 to £37.50, or £16.50 if you happen to be under 18.