Hayes Theatre, August 28


Remember your first time at the theatre? How miraculous it was to find another world within the one you knew? Caroline, or Change is as different from any musical you’ve ever seen on that scale of wonderment. Just for starters, what other musical has Washing Machine, Dryer, Radio and Moon for characters?

Elenoa Rokobaro. Photos: Phil Erbacher.

But the wonder runs much deeper than that. Tony Kushner (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music) have let their imaginations range unfettered across the swampy, semi-autobiographical terrain that Kushner (best known for Angels in America) has dredged from his childhood. It’s set in a Jewish Louisiana household in 1963, where Caroline (Elenoa Rokobaro) is the maid, and where change catalyses more change, and the choice is to cope or mope. Kushner’s recurrent metaphor is the phases of the Moon, played by Ruva in striking white satin before a luminous disc: an ethereal image that could have been cut and pasted from Oscar Wilde’s Salome-hatching mind.

With Kushner having provided the impetus, Tesori lets her music stampede across genres, eschewing all obligation to abide by song-forms; rather milking them for just as long as they suckle the show, and then discarding them. Who else has dared to range from music reminiscent of Benjamin Britten to music reminiscent of the Supremes? And when she does establish a song, per se, she jolts it with modulations and rhythmic surprises that must keep the 11-strong cast and the six-piece band (under Lucy Bermingham) on their toes.

Ryan Yeates and Elenoa Rokobaro. Photos: Phil Erbacher.

Caroline laments that she is 39 and still a maid, but she does have a champion in the household: eight-year-old Noah Gellman (Ryan Yeates). When Noah’s step-mother, Rose (Amy Hack), insists that any loose change left in pockets in the laundry be claimed by Caroline, Noah starts leaving coins intentionally. Torn between pride and the poverty of her fatherless children, Caroline buries her pride, but it’s a shallow grave.

Rokobaro’s arching voice punches your sternum into your chest as she brings ferocious commitment to the role. Her dry-eyed pain is countered by Yeates’ Noah, who lights up the stage with almost every line. Hack, too, is superb as the step-mother who ties herself in knots trying – and failing – to do right by everyone. The rest of the cast maintains the standard, while enacting a narrative which, just like the unpredictable music, has conflicts and tensions that twist out of ready resolution; which blends black Jewish humour with aching humanity.

It’s not flawless: Kushner allows some characters to express their feelings too fluently, and lets the intensity of his story wander, perhaps in the service of the extraordinary music. Yvette Lee’s choreography, meanwhile, can sometimes seem a taped-on afterthought in Mitchell Butel’s keenly directed production. Nonetheless this is a new-century musical theatre transformation to shake up its illustrious, once-revolutionary predecessors currently playing in Sydney: West Side Story and Chicago.

Until September 21.