Minerva Theatre, Chichester – until 3 June 2017
“Household rules and small decrees unsuspecting bring us these secret little tragedies.”
Well Daniel Evans looks set to be continuing one of Chichester Festival Theatre’s longstanding traditions, of producing musical theatre that tempts the cognoscenti over to West Sussex in droves and which leads calls for West End transfers as soon as the curtain falls (if they had curtains in Chichester that is…). His first musical for the venue is a promising one too, an adventurous choice in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline or Change, and an entirely successful one under Michael Longhurst‘s direction and a genuinely superb cast.
It is 1963, the United States is in the grip of a civil rights movement but one whose effects haven’t quite trickled all the way down to the Deep South just yet. Caroline Thibodeaux is an African American maid in Lakes Charles, Louisiana working for a Jewish family, The Gellmans, for 30 dollars a week. But she’s a single mother of 4 and ends are barely meeting so when stepmother of the house Rose devises a plan to teach her 8-year-old stepson Noah not to leave change in his pocket, it’s a difficult one to resist despite – or maybe because of – all the racial, social and economic tensions it represents.
Kushner has real fun playing with form – the cast list includes The Washing Machine, The Bus, and three people playing The Radio – but there’s deadly serious intent at work as we’re spared nothing of the indignities of a life in servitude. Following on from her bravura work in The Life, Sharon D Clarke offers another compelling performance as Caroline, silently furious at life and particularly anguished by her inability to connect with the winds of change that her best friend (the brilliant Nicola Hughes) and her teenage daughter (the equally good Abiona Omonua) are both riding.
Longhurst emphasises the vast array of influences that makes up Tesori’s all-encompassing score – the hints of Motown, the klezmer sound of the clarinet, the deeply-felt spiritual underpinning the African-American experience – and it sounds like a dream. It looks good too in Fly Davis’ period-detailed set under Jack Knowles’ keenly observed lighting, and the quality of the ensemble is evident from top to bottom – Lauren Ward, Jennifer Saayeng, Ako Mitchell, Beverley Klein…I could name them all. A stirring revival of a soaring show.