The theme of this year’s Festival season at Chichester is change, apt considering that the Sussex powerhouse is now under new artistic management.
But Caroline, Or Change, which opened last night in the venue’s Minerva Theatre, demonstrated that some things never change and that’s its ability to produce vibrant, show-stopping musicals.
This flawless, impeccible, sung-through musical, from Angels In America writer Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori, and directed with finesse by another Chichester new boy, Michael Longhurst, exemplifies why Chichester is arguably the country’s top regional theatre.
Everything about this extraordinary musical is perfection. Longhurst, recently directing at the National Theatre, has embraced the Minerva’s small stage to create an outstanding production worthy of the National itself.
The sublime casting sees the sensational Sharon D Clarke in the role of a lifetime as black maid, and domestic drudge, Caroline Thibodeaux, who has spent a lifetime washing and ironing clothes in the basement of the Gellmans, a Jewish family from Louisiana.
And she is supported by an exemplary ensemble from West End musical theatre. Three foxy ladies, Gloria Onitiri, Jennifer Saayeng and Keisha Amponsa Banson, pour themselves into series of dazzling costumes (designer Fly Davis is a breath of fresh air) to play a lively and animated radio (!) while the always fabulous Ako Mitchell is, in turn, a tumble dryer, a bus and Caroline’s long dead abusive drunk of a husband.
Caroline, Or Change is largely based on Kushner’s own upbringing in Lake Charles and his protagonist, a sullen, frustrated, implaccable woman, on the family’s own housekeeper, Maudie Lee Davis.
Americans may think that, under their new administration, the country is undergoing a devastating and cataclysmic change, but it’s nothing compared to life in November 1963.
It was a watershed moment for millions of black people who were struggling for civil rights at a time which saw the South resisting an end to segregation, rioting, lynchings and the assassination of the president JFK.
On a domestic level Stuart Gellman’s wife has died of lung cancer and he is having a hard time being a dad to their only child, Noah. Stuart (Alex Gaumond) just wants to practise his clarinet.
He’s remarried, to a family friend from progressive New York, but is increasingly remote with the boy. Noah, for his part, refuses to accept his new step-mother, Rose.
His only friend is Caroline, whose own children live in abject poverty while their mom works long hours, with only the washing machine and radio for company, for a measly $30 a week.
Well meaning Rose (Lauren Ward) finds it difficult to adapt to the Deep South, and particularly her uneasy relationship with Noah.
It irritates her that the young boy keeps leaving loose change in her dirty clothing so she tells Caroline that she can keep everything she finds – until a showdown with the boy drives a wedge between them.
Clarke is mesmerising as the devout, unsmiling maid, whose unbridled rage at a life wasted and unfulfilled, surfaces through songs that range in style from blues, soul and Motown.
Caroline snipes at friends and constantly berates her own kids who are growing up in a revolutionary culture of freedom and independence which their mother, who can barely read, never had as an option.
The children in the production are remarkably good. Opening night saw Charlie Gallacher play Noah, and James Gava and Josiah Choto as Caroline’s youngest kids, and they were outstanding.
Angela Caesar reprises her role as The Moon, from the 2006 National Theatre production, and is resplendent, hovering above the stage for her numbers.
But the production ultimately belongs to Sharon D Clarke who delivers an unforgettable performance.
Caroline, Or Change runs in the Minerva Theatre until June 3.
Sharon D Clarke gives a show-stopping turn in the impeccable, sung-through musical, Caroline, Or Change at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre.