Tony Kushner’s semi autobiographical 2004 Broadway musical Caroline, or Change, with a score by Jeanine Tesori, received its UK premiere last night (19 October 2006 previews from 10 October) at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre (See News, 25 Aug 2006).

In small town Louisiana in 1963 in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, Caroline Thibodeaux, a black maid to a southern Jewish family, is struggling to keep afloat both emotionally and economically, while Noah, the young son of her employer, tries to make sense of the world following the death of his mother. The small change Caroline finds in Noah’s pockets while doing the laundry makes a big difference to all concerned.

American Tonya Pinkins (pictured) recreates her acclaimed title performance, once again directed by George C Wolfe. The cast also features fellow American Nora Cole as well as Britons Clive Rowe, Anna Francolini, Valda Aviks, Ian Lavender, Hilton McRae, Malinda Parris, Nataylia Roni, Pippa Bennett-Warner and three rotating teams of children led (on press night) by Perry Millward as Noah.

Overnight critics were captivated by Pinkins’ central performance as the title character – as well as the supporting roles, most notably young Perry Millward - and enjoyed the range of music and themes featured in the musical, which some declared the best of this year’s abundant crop of the genre, deserving the top prizes come awards season.

  • Michael Coveney on (5 stars) – “We are enjoying such a glut of musical theatre at the moment that you could be forgiven for asking, well, what other kind of theatre is there? It’s significant, therefore, that the musical piece that is the most original, beguiling, ambitious and surprising might well turn out to be Caroline, or Change…. The generosity of the musical is reflected not only in the score – an astonishing amalgamation of American styles including blues, Motown, spirituals and klezmer – but also in the scope of the social canvas…. The inanimate world of Caroline’s kitchen comes throbbingly alive, too, in the singing washing machine, the radio (a Supremes-style trio in gold lame sheath dresses and beehive hair-do’s) and Clive Rowe’s hilarious dryer, an exploding Little Richard. Rowe also sings the pivotal lament for the death of JFK, as a night bus. Overseen by the ever-changing Moon herself (a gloriously turbanned, bluesy soul mother, Angela M Caesar), Caroline comes to a series of self-examinations culminating in a huge number that has been rightly compared to ‘Rose’s Turn’ in Gypsy. Tonya Pinkins delivers this, as she delivers the rest of the show, with consummate artistry and a welling passion that tears the audience apart. This is a majestic performance, one of the greatest I have ever seen in the musical theatre.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (5 stars) – “A remarkable musical…. One of the musical's great virtues… is that its big ideas grow out of the small change of human experience…. Kushner's non-linear book focuses on a relationship while giving us a kaleidoscopic portrait of a community. And Tesori's brilliant score eclectically employs different idioms to illustrate character and social dynamics…. George C Wolfe's Lyttelton production, designed with floating elegance by Riccardo Hernandez, matches the poetic freedom of the narrative. Repeating her New York performance, Tonya Pinkins is also magnificent as Caroline: unsentimental, indestructible, large-voiced, and yet capable of demonstrating the pain of personal change. Perry Millward, one of three boys who plays Noah, catches exactly the character's complex, love-hate feelings for the maid…. But the real joy lies in finding a musical that combines compassion with social awareness.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (4 stars) – “As directed by George C Wolfe, this New York import is big, bold yet of human scale…. Trivial stuff? Yes, but Kushner builds the incident into an example of the tense, difficult relationship of well-meaning, but limited, whites and suspicious blacks in an America in a social flux that continues today…. I wondered how impressive the evening would be if Wolfe’s cast spoke lines that don’t exactly soar. But that’s a test almost every opera or sung-through musical would fail. As it is, Tesori’s score, which embraces Afro-American and Jewish music, rock and blues and gospel, does help to give the evening the size and significance it’s in danger of lacking. That’s nowhere more the case than at the denouement when Pinkins renounces the hate she thinks has made her evil, accepts people different from herself, and commits herself to a gritty survival. Conservative stuff? Not as the brilliant Pinkins belts it out. She’s uneducated, she’s been wronged — and she’s by far the bravest spirit on stage.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (3 stars) – “Caroline, or Change attempts to reflect the turbulent spirit of America in 1963 when the civil rights campaign led to violent protests against segregation in Alabama and Martin Luther King marched on Washington. Kushner concentrates his attention on the travails of Caroline…. Tonya Pinkins plays the woman beautifully, in a performance that catches her character's taciturn stoicism and understated humanity…. Caroline, or Change turns out… to be a quaintly charming musical, beautifully acted. Its political nuances ripple all too gently in the background, the conflicts minor key. George C Wolfe's powerfully acted production needs greater momentum, though Riccardo Hernandez's mobile sets allow swift scenic transformations. Unfortunately, Kushner's almost non-stop lyrics, whose words too often become submerged by the ten-strong orchestra, are embarrassingly inept, banal and rambling. The musical exerts its strong hold, largely because of the charismatic Tonya Pinkins.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - Spencer appreciated “the surging emotion and astonishing originality of Caroline, or Change.… when the awards for best musical are announced, it will be a disgrace if this amazing piece of music theatre doesn’t seize the glittering prizes…. Kushner’s great achievement is to make the political personal in a work that combines great dramatic intensity with wild flights of fantasy and music of thrilling variety and strength…. Somehow the daring mixture of whimsy, passion and radical politics succeeds triumphantly…. The best numbers raise the hairs on the back of the neck. Tonya Pinkins is simply sensational in the title role… and she rips into her big numbers with the artistry of Aretha Franklin and the raw power of Janis Joplin. Perry Millward captures all the grief and confusion of the young Noah and the supporting roles are all superbly played.”

    ** DON’T MISS our Outing to CAROLINE, OR CHANGE on Thursday 16 November 2006 – top-price ticket & FREE drink at our post-show cast reception, all for £24.50! - click here for more details! **

    - by Caroline Ansdell