I was always obsessed with musical theatre, and in 2004 I could finally travel alone to NYC whenever I wanted/whenever my college schedule allowed and see Broadway shows more often. It was a big year – that was the year of ‘Wicked’, ‘Avenue Q’, ‘The Boy From Oz’, Alfred Molina’s ‘Fiddler’, Donna Murphy’s ‘Wonderful Town’, Audra in ‘Raisin in the Sun’. Such a busy season! I got to see Idina in ‘Wicked’, but another new show with a supposedly killer leading lady role slipped under my radar. That was ‘Caroline, or Change’, starring Tonya Pinkins as Caroline, a Tony-winning Anika Noni Rose as her daughter Emmie, and a score by Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner. It seemed pretty beloved, an interesting civil rights-age drama taking place in Louisiana, about a black maid working for a Jewish family but also with singing electrical appliances. How did that work, I wondered? It remained high on my list of shows I wanted to see someday, and so when the current English revival moved closer to the West End – to the Hampstead Theatre up north of the city – I did a little jig and said halleluyer, because I would finally see it.
It was not good.
I feel terrible saying it, because I know so many theatre fans like myself really love it, but I do not understand why. I wanted to love this show SO BADLY and no matter how much I was putting out there, hoping that it would offer me just the eeniest bit of love back, it gave me nothing. The book was a mess. How can you mess up the drama and complexities of relationships between black people and their white bosses, during the ‘60s, in the American south, right when JFK gets assassinated? I mean come on, that setting is PRIME for dramatic mining. Well, you mess it up by trying to shoehorn into a single show the stories about the relationship between the black maid and the white child of the family she works for, AND how the white boy’s mother had recently died, AND how the boy’s musician father remarried his wife’s best friend so they would have a wife/mother, AND how the white boy is handling the new mother, AND how the maid is handling the new boss, AND how the maid is dealing with raising her kids alone, AND how the maid’s kids are growing up, AND how the white boy’s grandparents from each side clash with each other over politics, AND how those grandparents conflict with the maid’s daughter over politics, AND how the maid has to deal with her pride, AND how the maid is a real B word to her fellow maids that she sees at the bus stop and refuses to be civil toward, AND how the other maid that we see like maybe twice is going to night school and wearing bobby socks, AND how the moon is an actual character AND how the electrical appliances in the basement where the maid spends most of her time SING AND DANCE and it’s all supposed to mean something? Oh and how the one thing that bonds the maid and the white boy is that she lets him light her daily cigarette.
That’s a lot of story threads that instead of braiding together and forming a solid yarn, they diminish into little wisps and amount to nothing. All these little nothing wisps mashed together mean that there’s simultaneously wayyy too much going on and yet there’s zero emotional heft, zero connection with the material when there should be loads. I know ‘Angels in America’ is a masterpiece but I’m a little wary of seeing it now, Tony Toni Tone. It was like this was going for ‘Love, Actually’ with that many threads but instead it gave us ‘Valentine’s Day’. And like the stories in that movie, you end up not being satisfied with any thread and walking out thinking it was pedestrian at best. If they focused on the relationship between Caroline and Noah, and how Noah imagined his maid’s family life versus what it was actually like (the one minute where they do that is the most compelling part), then we’d have a worthwhile story. Oh, and if Caroline were anything close to being sympathetic or even a little kind. But she’s not. She’s been through a lot of hardship, and as a black woman in the ‘60s south her hardships will never end, but that’s not enough of a reason to accept her being a vessel of pure hatred towards everyone around her. I get that anti-heroes are popular nowadays, but they usually have an appealing trait of some sort, or the whisper of charm or a sense of humor or something. Caroline gives us nothing, and maybe the point is that she doesn’t have to, and in real life she wouldn’t have to, she wouldn’t owe anyone anything, but if you want me to care about this character in a play she’s going to have to be worth caring about. If we’re supposed to feel something besides revulsion, there’s no opportunity or reason for doing so.
The main story is: Caroline is the maid working for the Gellmans, a jewish family with a little boy named Noah, who is dealing with his mother’s loss and his new stepmother, Rose. You think at first that Caroline and Noah might have a sweet relationship, bonding in the basement after school as Caroline does her work, but she’s pretty mean to him all the time. Their one thing, like I said above, is that she lets Noah light her cigarette and he’s like ‘oh boy oh boy!’ and she’s like ‘hurry up I need a smoke then get out of my face’ and we’re like this is neither cute nor sweet nor appropriate for this kid, also his mother died from smoking. The stepmother, Rose, is upset with Noah because he always leaves his money in his pockets, which Caroline finds every day as she does the laundry, and she fills the bleach cup with it and returns it to the Gellmans, every penny of it. Rose tells Caroline, you know what, to teach Noah to value his money, let’s say that everything he leaves in his pockets, everything in the bleach cup at the end of the week, is yours to keep. This is difficult for Caroline to accept because it makes her seem like a beggar, scrounging for pennies, while Rose doesn’t see the problem with it. The extra money would help Caroline so much, but taking it is a huge blow to her pride. And so the ‘change’ of the title is both the change in the times and the literal change in the bleach cup. It’s kind of trite. Caroline has it hard, with four kids, one at war, and an ex-husband who was abusive. She’s understandably mean to everyone – her employers, Noah, the other maids in the neighborhood – but just because it’s understandable doesn’t mean it’s forgivable. She kind of sucks, and then at the end, as she gets meaner and meaner and for some reason unleashes her rage on Noah, she’s reprehensible.
Tony Kushner also wrote the lyrics, and they had me cringing in my seat. There were so many clunkers. I remember in the opening one of the grandfather’s sings about his deceased daughter’s smoking: “It killed her. She died. It killed her. She’s dead.” JESUS. Every other song mentioned how in Louisiana, the dead – and Caroline as she’s always in the basement – aren’t underground, but underwater. It’s kind of poetic and sets a certain mood, right? Yeah, the first 4 times. When you’re getting to the 20th, 30th mention of how we aren’t underground but underwater, it’s no longer profound or elegant or anything other than repetitive and annoying. We also hear a lot about how Noah’s mother played the bassoon. That’s an interesting fact, I guess. They talk about it a lot. Like a lot a lot. It does not seem that important the 15th time.
I wish that I could say Jeanine Tesori’s score was great despite Tony Kushner’s abysmal lyrics, but it wasn’t. Everything sounded the same and that same was pretty dull. It’s a real shame because I love Tesori’s other works – ‘Fun Home’ is a masterpiece, a true masterpiece, but I guess partnering with Lisa Kron was required for that one to shine. She wrote the great ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’, with lyricist Dick Scanlon. And she wrote ‘Violet’, which I adore, with Brian Crawley, and ‘Shrek’, which is surprisingly magical, with David Lindsay-Abaire. Suffice it to say, she doesn’t have a steady writing partner, and she needed one for ‘Caroline’. She’s such a legendary, wonderful musician and I just don’t get what she was doing here. The only song that I remembered when I left was the one when Noah sings, revolving round and round the stage, ‘On the first day day day Caroline stayed away way way and she didn’t come back back back and she didn’t come back back back.’ Repeat 5 times. And yes the melody is just as you think, like just a childhood rhyme. Omg it was painful. Now it’s in my head again dammit.
When I first realized I was trying incredibly hard, too hard, to enjoy this show, I figured it’s because the book and score, the bones of the show, are weak and inadequate. I assumed this production did the best it could with what meager bones it was working with, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. Directing this show is a huge challenge, and as I’ve only seen it once I can’t say what is this production’s doing differently. But I can say that the tone was all over the place, impossible to pin down. We have all the troubled relationships, all the misery and despair of the south, and then we have the bubbly singing washing machine, the terrifying singing dryer, the singing trio of girls (with ever-changing matching outfits that were impressive) representing the radio. At first I thought that was cute, and I assumed that the show would be the sort that could handle such bizarre portrayals of home goods, but it isn’t. Things only fell apart more when the moon arrived – the actress sits in a moon-shaped seat and floats through the rafters for a good chunk of the show – and still refuses to make any sense when paired with the dismal realism of the rest of the show. Nothing ever really gels, and yes a huge reason for that is because of the material, but the direction doesn’t help at all, nor do the performances, and I really hate saying that because this show has a great cast. But while Abiona Omonua’s Emmie was winning and adorable, Anika Noni Rose has that incredible voice that could really rip into her songs and make more out of them. I didn’t even realize until I looked at the programme after the fact that Rose was played by Lauren Ward, as in Miss Honey from the original West End and Broadway “Matilda” cast. Just had no idea. It’s hard to shine in that role. The Noah we saw was Aaron Gelkoff, a really talented kid who successfully made us feel for Noah even though he’s super annoying. And I always like Ako Mitchell but playing the dryer is just weird; there’s not much he can do with it even though it’s somehow one of the biggest parts.
But the biggest issue is with Caroline. She’s played by one of the few West End actors I actually really like, Sharon D. Clarke, who has been exceptional in everything I’ve seen her in. I thought she was fine here, making do with an unrewarding role, playing a woman who hates everyone and so we hate her back. But since seeing it, I’ve fallen down the youtube rabbit hole (fun fact: ‘Rabbit Hole’ was written by Tesori’s ‘Shrek’ writing partner Lindsay-Abaire) to watch videos of the original Caroline, Tonya Pinkins. Sharon was very one-note the entire time, but Pinkins adds layers that made it just a little easier to not hate her the entire time. Pinkins’s rendition of the one big song, “Lot’s Wife”, the 11 o’clock number, shows so much more emotion. Instead of just seething with anger and resentment, Pinkins’s performance shows anguish and hope and regret and a wish with her entire being that she could be better. Sharon’s Caroline was just stone-cold anger and hate; I got nothing else from her, and I think that’s a huge reason why it didn’t work for me.
Of course, Caroline isn’t a likable character, as written, and so there’s not much the actress can do with her anyway. She has no positive attributes to make an audience root for her. And instead of coming around at the end, maybe giving Noah a hug or even an encouraging word to show that their relationship is warmer than it seems, she unleashes all her venom onto him, all the hate that bubbles within her, and tells him that “Hell is where Jews go when they die.” I choked a little bit on the pure hatred that fills this statement --- and the rest of the audience laughed. And I don’t mean nervous, tense laughter; I mean they belly laughed like this was a funny joke. I ran this by my Broadway people to see if it happens usually in other productions and, except for one person who said that a few people laughed when she saw it but it was really disturbing and most people gasped, everyone was like, ‘what, no that’s not a laugh line, that is so fucked up.’ It really is. Is Europe so awash in anti-Semitism again that London audiences are laughing at stuff like this? I’m horrified, as a NORMAL person would be, FFS. Anyway, after Caroline says a line that that to a little child, you lose whatever care you had for her and since she never makes amends for it or any of her bad behavior, it just loses you completely.
Even though this is all prettayyy prettayyy negative, it’s not entirely painful to watch. The cast is good, the vocals are all good. The story, or hodgepodge of potential stories, just really didn’t work for me, no matter how badly I wanted it to. I wonder if it will change at all before the West End transfer, but I don’t know how much of what’s problematic they actually could improve.
Clearly fucked up and terrifying.
Whoever designed the Hampstead Theatre is batshit crazy. The only bathrooms are by the entrance, behind the box office. That’s REAL DUMB. God people are paid to do jobs like this, I can’t even believe it.
The bathrooms are cool though, with each stall featuring a full-length portrait of a famous actress from a role played at this theatre. Well, all famous actresses save for Simon Russell Beale, who is pictured from a show where he played a woman. Fun times.