Caroline, or Change theatre review (Hayes Theatre, Sydney)

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As the lonely, sex-starved, pill-popping housewife Harper Pitt said to the mannequin in the Mormon Center diorama: “How do people change?”

“Well,” the mannequin responds, “it has something to do with God so it’s not very nice. God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in. He grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists. He pulls and pulls ‘till all your innards are yanked out. And the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching.”

Which is to say, as playwright Tony Kushner so graphically did, that real change is hard. It’s gruesomely messy and unbearably painful. It certainly was for his characters in two-part opus Angels In America. And it’s very much true of the character Caroline in Kushner’s first (and only) musical.

Change is what Caroline — African-American maid to a fractured family of white Jews in barmy, racially charged 1960s Louisiana — keeps stuffing into her apron, pilfered from the dirty pants of eight-year-old Noah, her granted reward and his punishment for not emptying his pockets. A quarter here and there could buy the dental work one of her three children needs, or presents for Christmas she couldn’t otherwise afford.

But actual change, life change, is so much harder to come by. Not when you’re this poor, this exhausted, not in ‘60s America with Confederate statues staring down at you, not with this well of grief from past love lost.

“My madness rise up in a fury so wild and I let myself go,” Caroline cries in Lot’s Wife. “Pocket change change me, pocket change change me / Can’t afford loose change, can’t afford change”.

So Caroline sings to the moon. And sometimes, with the magic realism you might expect from Kushner, the moon sings back. And sometimes Caroline, Or Change orbits the moon, the sun and the other planets.

Caroline is embodied so completely in this production by Elenoa Rokobaro in a star-making, no doubt award-winning performance.

It’s an extraordinary piece, a deeply personal story from Kushner, based loosely on his own childhood. And it’s scored so sharply and distinctly by Jeanine Tesori (Violet, Fun Home).

Memorable songs? There aren’t any really, just fragments of soaring jazz, blues and gospel melodies, haunting harmonies, Kushner’s jolting lyrics, like walking past a radio, wafting on a hot Louisiana breeze. Or guttural howls, like Lot’s Wife, Caroline’s 11 o’clock lament, expelled as naturally as carbon dioxide.

At the Hayes, Caroline is embodied so completely by Elenoa Rokobaro in a star-making, no doubt award-winning performance. She is a coil of hurt, anger and resentment yet dignified and entirely sympathetic. And she sings like an absolute dream. None of it would work without her.

It’s a tricky sing for many of the cast and there’s some variance in the quality of the performances. Rudely impressive on opening night was Ryan Yeates, who didn’t miss a note as young Noah and conveyed grief for a lost mother and cheek manipulating his family. The relationship between Noah and Caroline is the core of the work and he played so well off Rokobaro. Daniel Harris plays the role in alternate performances.

Nkechi Anele, debuting on a theatre stage if you don’t mind, is another standout and a real find, with a powerful voice and depth of emotion as Caroline’s oldest child. Step-mom Rose could have been a one-note character but Amy Hack invests her with understandable anxiety and well-meaning. Pros Genevieve Lemon and Tony Llewellyn-Jones are a gift in small roles.

Mitchell Butel, amassing an impressive resume of directorial work, thoughtfully stages the drama on Simon Greer’s gorgeous split-level set, masterfully lit by a real master in Alexander Berlage. From backstage, musical director Lucy Bermingham achieves a lushness with her five-piece of cello, reeds, guitar, bass and percussion.

There’s some shagginess to the performance that will be ironed out over the run, no doubt. And it’s a show that bears a repeat visit, so rich is it in music, poetry and life.

And that’s how people change.

Caroline, Or Change plays the Hayes Theatre until September 21

Photo of Ryan Yeates and Elenoa Rokobaro by Phil Erbacher

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