Thursday, January 04, 2007

Caroline, don't change

To the National Theatre's Lyttelton Theatre for an opera about a black maid in a Jewish household after the Kennedy assassination. Obviously.

Caroline, or Change has a book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, author of the incomparable epic Angels in America, so I had the highest expectations in dramatic and textual terms. I was unsure about what the music would be like, having not heard Jeanine Tesori's work before.

The plot is fairly simple: Caroline (the outstanding Tonya Pinkins, who played her on Broadway) is a maid to the Gellman family in New Orleans. Noah Gellman's new step-mother, Rose (Anna Francolini), says Caroline can have all the change forgetful Noah leaves in his pockets. When he leaves a $20 bill, trouble starts as turns against Caroline, heretofore a maternal figure. This is set against the unhappy domestic background of the widower Stuart Gellman (Richard Henders) and new wife Rose and - of course - the civil rights struggle.

The acting and singing are strong on all sides, particularly Pinkins, who hits a difficult medley of themes and melodies with every grief- and defeat- and hope-stricken note she's got. She's a complete knockout, reducing half the audience to tears and the other half to ecstasy. Instead of the unrealistic cliché of the woman overcoming, Pinkins and Kushner give us a lifelike portrait, striving for stability in a difficult world and not necessarily triumphing.

It's hard to comment specifically on the child-actors (Noah and two of Caroline's children) because they alternate and I'm not sure whom I saw, but they were wonderful, regardless. Quite the little movers and singers.

Words-wise, happily Kushner lived up to his Tony-laden reputation. The lyrics and book (really recitative) are dense and typically eloquent, full of darting humour and pitch-perfect. To do them justice really would require another viewing at least. But as with Angels and his Homebody/Kabul (on which more another time), you're blown away by the ranges and emotions he can evoke.

The music is as complex as the lyrics. Instead of your typical musical, with song-applause-speech-song-applause-speech, each song complete and 'satisfying', Tesori has people sing snatches or verses or even verses and choruses, but we never get your standard song the whole way through. This is a rough texture of sweet and painful music, but it works in portraying the fracturing world. The songs are more like themes, to reappear at certain moments. When they collide, they are truly powerful.

Enough has been written in the papers about the many types of change (or not) in the show, so I'll leave those, except to say that the lyrics ('Change come fast and change come slow but everything changes') hold out some hope of progress, as manifested in Caroline's radical daughter.

The last performance is tonight, so I'm afraid it's rather late for a review, but it was so heart-breaking and powerful and well done that I thought I should record it.

1 comment:

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