CAROLINE, OR CHANGEat the Minerva Theatre, Chichester
A warmly enthusiastic reception on Press Night for this stunning revival. Tony Kushner's musical, initially commissioned by San Francisco Opera, is an opera in all but name, almost entirely sung through, with just a little underscored dialogue and sprechgesang.
Following its New York première, it had a successful production at the National Theatre in 2006. A decade later, it's certainly due another outing. That NT never transferred; this one could well follow a long line of Chichester musicals into the West End.
On the same day we stood and cheered in the Minerva, confederate statues were being removed, not without protest, in Louisiana. Just such a statue, in that very state, greeted us as we walked in, only to disappear before the action begins. Exactly why, and how, gradually becomes clear as the plot unfolds.
The story succeeds on both the personal and the political level. Caroline is the African-American maid, toiling in the humid heat of a Louisiana basement - “sixteen feet down”. She's employed by a dysfunctional Jewish family, a reserved clarinet-playing father, and his second wife, neither a bassoonist nor a smoker, unlike his dead first wife, mother to the lonely little boy Noah [based loosely on Kushner's own childhood].
This is a very polished revival, with a long stair-case to emphasise the divide between the family and their slave. The costumes are striking, too, for the Radio – three Supremish singers – the Washing Machine, all over bubbles, and the red hot Dryer, who doubles as the Bus - “the orphan ship of state”.
All the performances are superb, led by Sharon D Clarke's powerful Caroline, her nobility and heroic resignation cracking only very rarely, as when she “speaks her hate to a child”. Her great arias are breathtakingly done – Lot's Wife a show-stopping performance. Her daughter, one of the agents of change in this subtly developed story, is a fierce rebel teen, compellingly played by Abiona Omonua. And the young Noah is unbelievably well done by Charlie Gallacher – one of two children to share the role. Because, like all the company, he has a deeply explored character, some complicated choreography and a tricky score to master.
The show, deftly directed by Michel Longhurst, manages to explore epic themes – change is slow to come to this forgotten corner of Lousiana – and the intricate dynamics of the two families. Nigel Lilley, and a splendid pit band above the stage, make the most of Jeanine Tesori's evocative, varied and very melodious score.
Memorable moments galore, including the Act One finale, a wonderful dance fantasy from the four children and the Moon flying overhead. Dollar bills rain down on the stage – change is in the air, we feel, the money Noah “accidentally” leaves in his pants' pocket a symbol of the old patronising relationship between the Gellmans and the Thibodeaux.
production photograph: Marc Brenner