When New York Times critic Ben Brantley reviewed the world premiere of Caroline, or Change at New York's Public Theatre in 2003, he almost damned it not so much with faint praise but with over-praise, declaring that "in truth, it is almost too good to be good." He then dug the knife into its considered and considerable achievements by declaring that it "might be regarded as the brooding person's Hairspray." Ouch!
Whereas Hairspray is a lovable hug of a show that draws its audience into a warm embrace yet all the while also offers an open-hearted confrontation of '60s racism on American television, Caroline, or Change is a more tricksy proposition that, like its title character herself, holds itself more remotely, with a kind of chilly disdain, resignation and the deep pain of inequality.
It, too, is set in a racially divided America, as it portrays the lot of a black maid and housekeeper to a middle-class Jewish family, and her relationship with the 8-year-old son of the family. His habit of leaving loose change in his trouser pockets gives the show part of its title - though it’s an ambiguous title, since it also refers to the changes in America itself, as it spans the catastrophic assassination of John F Kennedy and the politics of Martin Luther King.
But if your heart doesn't exactly soar watching it, it's nevertheless a gorgeous, riveting, daring and unusual musical. No wonder that, when George C Wolfe's original New York production (that also played on Broadway briefly after its run at the Public) transferred to London's National Theatre with its original phenomenal star Tonya Pinkins, it won the 2007 Olivier Award for Best Musical. (It beat out two more Broadway imports Avenue Q and Spamalot, both of which had won the Tony equivalent in their years, whereas Caroline, or Change had in fact lost the Tony to Avenue Q in 2004).
And whereas Caroline, or Change is yet to have a major New York revival, here it is again in London, in a brand-new production that originated at Chichester's Minerva Theatre last year. It is playing a sell-out season at Hampstead Theatre, but has already announced a West End transfer to the Playhouse Theatre in November.
I've seen the show five times now - at the Public, on Broadway, at the National, at Chichester and now at Hampstead - and I already can't wait to see it again in the West End. It's a show of complex and multiple layers that reveal themselves with deeper poignancy and fractured feeling each time you see it.
That's especially true of the understated yet dazzling performance of the stoical, severe Sharon D Clarke as Caroline. Long one of the secret weapons of London's musical theatre scene, I've been tacking her for nearly twenty-five years, including Olivier nominations for Once on this Island, We Will Rock You and Ghost and an Olivier win for The Amen Corner at the National Theatre in 2014. There surely should be another for her performance here, which is one of overpowering power, majesty and dignity.
But director Michael Longhurst's production is no one-woman show, either, but an astonishing ensemble effort that - in writer Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori's playful scenario - brings objects like the radio, washing machine, dryer and a bus to human life. This provides welcome light relief from the piercing gloom of Caroline's overheated basement working space.
Tesori, whose Fun Home will soon be seen at the Young Vic, is one of Broadway's most chameleon-like composers, as adept at light frothy fare like Thoroughly Modern Millie or Shrek as she is of much darker shows like Caroline, or Change, Violet and Fun Home. This is one of the most exhilarating scores to be currently heard in London. Is it "too good to be good?" No, it is too good to miss.
Caroline or Change Tickets are available now.
Photos courtesy Alastair Muir