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Caroline or Change: one mother’s life 16ft beneath the sea

Caroline or Change, West End , London, Playhouse Theatre, musical, Sharon D Clarke, reviews,
Caroline or Change: Sharon D Clarke at left, with Mesha Bryan, Tshan Williams and Sharon-Rose as The Radio, with Carole-Stennett as the washing machine. Photo Alastair Muir

Tony Kushner’s Caroline or Change has transferred to the West End after glowing reviews and an Olivier-Award winning start at Chichester and a successful stint at the Hampstead Theatre. With music by Jeanine Tesori, the show was first performed in NYC in 2003 and in London in 2006 and is set in America during the 1960s, a time of significant social upheaval. Michael Longhurst’s revival comes hot on the heels of another acclaimed run for the writer’s best-known work ‘Angels in America’ which ran at the National Theatre in the summer…

Caroline or Change, West End , London, Playhouse Theatre, musical, Sharon D Clarke, reviews,
Caroline or Change: Sharon D. Clark, maid to to a Jewish family in Louisiana. Noah the son of her employer stands at rear

This is no way a feel-good musical – hardly surprising when the subject matter is domestic servitude and racial dynamics in civil-rights era America. It also purposely has songs and structures which reflect the dark tonal themes so you won’t find yourself humming them on the way home. They are however delivered with gusto from the professional cast in which the child actors match the adults in strong performances, especially 8-year-old Noah who has a lot of stage time. Through the southern soul sounds and heartfelt gospel we are also regaled with the clarinet and celebratory traditional Jewish music as a contrasting cultural soundtrack.

The musical opens in Lake Charles Louisiana in 1963. The African-American maid Caroline Thibodeaux (played by theatre legend Sharon D Clarke) contemplates her life of domestic drudgery doing laundry for a white Jewish family for $30 a week. We find her in a humid, windowless basement she describes in song as ’16ft Beneath The Sea’, with just a radio and her youngest charge, their only child the friendly Noah, who revels in their secret lighting of her cigarettes (‘The Cigarette’).  She sees her life as hopeless and unchanged in the 22 years she has worked in the same house and the appliances – a washing machine and dryer – are centre stage in her solitude as living characters spinning around like some corny American game show prize (‘Laundry Quintet”). The radio also is portrayed as a Greek chorus of Radios 1, 2 and 3 by a trio of black female vocalists whose Motown-style songs illustrate her plight with sweet harmonies. Way up above we have the beautiful glimmering singing Moon (Angela Caesar) who oversees the action.

The main focus is the relationship between Caroline, her employers and her own young family: a feisty daughter and her three sons (one serving in Vietnam). Her employer, the rather neurotic second wife Rose, seems unwilling to offer Caroline a raise so instead offers leftover food or the opportunity to keep Noah’s loose pocket change to teach him a life lesson ironically in looking after money. Noah deliberately leaves change in his trousers which Caroline puts into a  cup (‘Quarter In A Bleach Cup’) on the machine and which she eventually puts in her purse, humiliated but out of necessity, for rare treats for her children (‘I’ve Got Four Children’). This bitterness makes her tetchy and finally she lashes out at Noah when he clings to her because he’s unable to bond with his stepmother and is missing his deceased mother (‘Noah Has A Problem’).

By day, Caroline is effectively isolated from her own community which is at the centre of current affairs. On leaving work she meets up with a friend Dotty who innocently asks her how are things while mentioning her boyfriend and attending night school. Caroline is irked by her questions and ambitions and starts an argument about their different lifestyles. Dotty remarks about the strange beheading of a confederate statue in the town (‘Moon Change’) in an uncanny prediction of the real-life American national drama in the South and conviction of a  Charlottesville racist killer recently.  The women are shocked that the bus delay is due to the news of JFK’s assassination (‘The President Is Dead’). When she tells her daughter of his passing Emmie is unmoved, frustrated that his promises for the black community didn’t materialise.

Caroline or Change, West End , London, Playhouse Theatre, musical, Sharon D Clarke, reviews,
Caroline or Change: Angela Caesar as Moon. Photo Alastair Muir

Inter-racial differences come into focus when Rose’s Jewish family come visiting from NY for Hannukah and Caroline and her daughter find themselves preparing a celebratory meal. A lively discussion around the festive table ensues between the patriarch and Caroline’s daughter about the fate of minorities. Caroline is vexed and a little afraid of her daughter’s vocal protestations, knowing that a raised black voice to a white person could lead to a beating or much worse. She also doesn’t want to lose her job.

Things come to a head when Noah accidentally leaves a $20 bill in his pocket after being given to him by his grandfather and which Caroline keeps. Their row provokes an exchange of racial slurs that elicit an audible gasp from the audience.  Caroline disappears from her basement workplace, causing consternation in a household which has taken her for granted, and mistakenly believed they shared a friendship in which there is no equality or choice. Caroline chooses this time to bond with her daughter who explains that she wants something better for her future. In a standout song (‘Lot’s Wife’) Caroline wrings out the emotion dealing with her inner turmoil and faith, the church  being the sanctuary that offered hope to the harsh lives black people led. The finale leads to a less than surprising reveal of the generational attitudes of the mother and daughter and a new awareness to the fragile household.

There has a been a decades-long history of Hollywood’s troublesome affair with black maids, from the Oscar winning Hattie McDaniels in the 1940 ‘Gone With the Wind’, to Oscar-winning Viola Davis in ‘The Help’ in 2012. In that period, Oscar-nominated Juanita Moore in ‘Imitation Of Life’ and Whoopi Goldberg in ‘Corrina Corrina’ joined these portrayals addressing America’s complex issues with race and the South. One of the first depictions I can remember as a child is Mammy Two Shoes, the faceless black maid who frequently appeared as one of the only humans regularly featured in the popular long-running cartoon ‘Tom and Jerry’. Like a lot of comic stereotypes of negroes in entertainment at that time she would be roundly scorned right now.

The writer of this musical has said he doesn’t believe there’s such a thing as a non-political play. This one is based on Tony Kushner’s life and it offers a window into literally a nanny state of mind for him and a vast generation of rich American white children growing up where black maids were a constant in their lives and perhaps also a confidante and surrogate mother. What impact did this have on their view of race as adults we can’t glean as Noah is only seen as a young child, and the adults here don’t appear to form any long-lasting alliances outside of employee/employer. The show is to be recommended for depicting a slice of pivotal American social history where black women were the backbone of rich white families in a divided country, and skin colour determined your social status. We are eventually beginning to hear the voices of the women in this hidden world where recent studies show 1 in 25 female workers worldwide is a domestic worker.

Caroline or Change, West End , London, Playhouse Theatre, musical, Sharon D Clarke, reviews,
Caroline or Change: Carole Stennett, TShan Williams and Sharon Rose as The Radio. Photo Marc Brenner

Afterwards, a backstage tour and
talk with the cast

Caroline or Change, West End , London, Playhouse Theatre, talk, Mike Longhurst, Sharon D Clarke, critics, Matt Trueman, backstage, Tony Kushner
Public talk at the Playhouse Theatre following Caroline or Change: director Mike Longhurst, actress Sharon D Clarke who plays the title role and theatre critic Matt Trueman chairing the event.

We were fortunate to join an after-show interview and brief Q&A with the actors and director who discussed the genesis of the play and how they came to be involved. We also enjoyed an interesting backstage tour, along with dressing rooms and of course I was interested in the props which included a Servis washing machine and a table setting that included plastic and real cooked vegetables.

Caroline or Change runs at the Playhouse Theatre
from 20 November 2018 to 9 February 2019

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In the musical Hadestown the devil has all the best tunes

Amber Gray,Hadestown, National Theatre, London, musical, theatre, Nathaniel Cross ,
Hadestown: Amber Gray as Persephone and Nathaniel Cross on trombone. (Photo Helen Maybanks)

poster, Hadestown, National Theatre, London, musical, theatre,A new musical has arrived at the NT from NY. Celebrated singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin have transformed Mitchell’s album into a genre-defying new musical that mixes modern American folk music with vintage New Orleans jazz to reimagine the sweeping Ancient Greek tale of Orpheus and his muse Eurydice. Andy Polaris visits London’s National Theatre to review Hadestown…
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Hadestown, National Theatre, London, musical, theatre, Orpheus, Euridice, Eva Noblezada, Reeve Carney,
Hadestown: Reeve Carney as Orpheus and Eva Noblezada as Euridice. (Photo Helen Maybanks)

Hadestown opens in what appears to be a southern blues venue you may expect to find on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a split-level space with musicians overlooking the dancefloor and wooden tables and chairs for the drinkers. A spiral staircase leads to an ornate balcony overhead with a hidden back room where the management can view all the salacious proceedings that are associated with liquor and raucous revellers.

It opens with mature dapper Hermes (Andre de Shields) as the narrator who sets the stage and introduces us to young, footloose and hungry Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) who comes across another free spirit, musician Orpheus (Reeve Carney). He is quickly smitten with Eurydice and feels that their fate is entwined. Despite having little material wealth, he has the gift of music and song, so persuades her in ‘Come Home With Me’ that he will change her life.

They are joined by a talented company of singers/dancers who act as revellers in the club and work up a sweat as factory workers enslaved by the relentless hardships of the underworld. Especially in the factory scenes, the robust choreography by David Neumann is in parts sexy and solemn and it made me think of Madonna’s classic industrial ‘Express Yourself’ video, itself heavily influenced by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The revolving stage that hollowed out and dropped down to evoke Hadestown was impressive, as were the dancers’ chain-gang moves in several of the physical songs such as ‘Way Down Hadestown’.

Andre de Shields , Hadestown, National Theatre, London, musical, theatre,
Hadestown: Andre de Shields as Hermes with the company. (Photo Helen Maybanks)

Eurydice falls under the commanding spell of Hades (Patrick Page), the power behind the curtain like the Mighty Oz, whose terrific bass voice intones the rules of engagement. With his promise of no more hunger and uncertainty during ‘Hey Little Songbird’, she grasps the nettle in desperation. Throughout, the vampy female Fates (Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher, Gloria Onitiri) sing and play accordion and violin to offer their judgement on the hapless lovers. The shimmying and sashaying trio deliver ‘When The Chips Are Down’ with beautiful harmonies and so much sass that I found myself humming this vocal highlight on the way home (and will I’m sure become a burlesque/cabaret favourite).

Hades’ lover Persephone (Amber Gray) belts outs  ‘Livin It Up On Top’ in a voice familiar with gin and weary with eternity. When Hades and Eurydice explain ‘Why We Build the Wall’ it chimes with the current climate in the US in an effective call-and-response with the chorus. As the lovers’ separation and reunion follows the Ancient Greek myth, the action dips a little before the finale, yet the joy of this show is the beauty and clarity of the diverse ensemble who are both attractive and accomplished. Eva Nobledaze (who starred previously in Miss Saigon) has a mesmerising voice that showcases the vulnerablity of Eurydice. The boyish charm and passion of guitar-slinging Orpheus is embodied in Reeve Carney, whose sweet vocal range is reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, and together their chemistry brought conviction to this romantic tragedy.

Hadestown is a musician’s and singer’s musical with everyone on that crowded stage getting down with the funk, jazz, and blues to an exceptional high standard. I’m sure its success is inevitable on Broadway and we’re lucky to catch this American cast in London, that’s why I would urge you to invest in this fatalistic and familiar tale.

Carly Mercedes Dyer, Gloria Onitiri, Rosie Fletcher ,Hadestown, National Theatre, London, musical, theatre,
Hadestown: Carly Mercedes Dyer, Gloria Onitiri and Rosie Fletcher as the Fates. (Photo Helen Maybanks)

* Though the London run at the NT is sold out until 26 Jan 2019, every Friday at 1pm an allocation of £20 tickets for Hadestown is released by the National Theatre to buy online, for the following week’s performances.

* Read more about Hadestown at the National Theatre website. The show comes to the UK following record-breaking runs at New York Theatre Workshop and Canada’s Citadel Theatre, before opening on Broadway.

* Follow the show’s progress at its own Hadestown website

Hadestown, National Theatre, London, musical, theatre, Orpheus, Euridice,
Hadestown: The exceptionally talented and muscular company. (Photo Helen Maybanks)

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David Byrne triumphantly rewrites the rules for a rock concert

David Byrne, live concert, 'American Utopia', rock music, musicians,choreography
Live on-stage: David Byrne playing guitar at the centre of his barefoot ‘American Utopia’ musicians. Photographed by Ben Stas

Last time that I saw the legendary Talking Heads was over thirty years ago at London’s Hammersmith Palais. It was the ‘Remain In Light’ tour, a landmark album for the band with the creative production of Brian Eno and live with Bernie Worrell from Funkadelic augmenting the line-up.  So the glowing five-star international reviews for David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’ tour 2018 meant there was genuine and palpable anticipation surging through the 4,000-strong audience packed into the Brighton Centre this week.

The set opened with a vast empty stage, only a small table and chair with a grey-haired casually suited Byrne seated and singing to a plastic brain which he held aloft. He looked like the coolest science teacher explaining its merits, albeit barefoot and to a much more appreciative adult education class. He was joined onstage by similarly attired backing vocalists Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba who we quickly realised, along with the rest of the 11-piece band, were agile in their dual role as musicians and dancers. It was the realisation that with Annie-B Parson’s sophisticated and at times elaborate choreography (especially for the backing vocalists) this was far from standard fare.  I then remembered the work Byrne did with dancer Twyla Tharp in the eighties, and realised this show has become a logical next step in the imaginative presentation of his eclectic catalogue.

We moved uptempo with ‘Lazy’, the breezy solo club hit that resulted when Byrne guested as vocalist with X Press 2, and this buoyed the crowd with its almost aerobic glee. This was followed by the first Talking Heads gem ‘I Zimbra’ (Fear of Music) when we saw everyone – especially the impressive six-piece percussion section – play and dance a combination of street carnival panache and those joyous college brass bands in the US.

David Byrne, live concert, tour, 'American Utopia' ,poster
David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’ 2018 tour poster

From here on we were treated to almost two hours of frenetic then thoughtful funky reworkings of Talking Heads material and cuts from David Byrne’s prodigious solo material including the current release ‘American Utopia’ which reflects on the dire current US political climate with a sense of hope. The standouts were many but the surreal when released ‘Once In A Lifetime’ crackled with almost evangelical zeal as Byrne flung himself around on-stage… Against giant dancing shadows like a Busby Berkeley musical number, ‘Blind’ was given brassy punch and brought energetic solos from its talented percussionist pool… The opening guitar chords of ‘Burning Down the House’ did exactly what it said on the label… ‘Everybody’s Coming To My House’ exuded an inclusive party feel which Byrne explained was also matched by his band’s origins from all around the world. Personally I loved  ‘Born Under Punches’ and ‘The Great Curve’ because ‘Remain in Light’ is one of my favourite albums.

The incredibly talented and tight band were unencumbered by cables and the usual stage furniture so were free to inhabit the space and relish their obvious camaraderie. Their sense of fun was immediately reflected in the audience enthusiasm which elevated this evening to an experience more aligned with modern theatre than Brighton’s bland conference venue.

The show didn’t end with the classic ‘Psycho Killer’ but a more unexpected cover of Janelle Monae’s ‘Hell You Talmbout’, a song whose communally chanted names of people are the grim list of victims who inspired Black Lives Matter, killed in the most dreadful circumstances, and including Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray amongst others. Before the song Byrne suggested the audience google their names if they were unaware who they were. It echoed the themes of ‘American Utopia’ and his involvement in voter registration for the mid-term elections and possibility of change.

This was a triumphant show and one that will be remembered for setting a new benchmark in creativity. I can think of ‘Wire’ at London’s Jeanette Cochrane theatre and Grace Jones’s ‘One Man Show’ at Drury Lane among the few that I can remember that successfully pulled off originality with such aplomb. Now who, I wonder, made those two-piece grey suits?

David Byrne, live concert, 'American Utopia' ,musicians,choreography
Look, no wires: David Byrne amid his eleven musicians all playing live yet free to roam the stage

David Byrne’s year-long ‘American Utopia’ tour 2018 continues via Europe to Australia

All about David Byrne

Animal Nightlife releases hit 80s album Shangri-la on CD for the first time

I am pleased to announce that the Animal Nightlife album Shangri-la, published only on vinyl in 1985, has been released for the
first time as a deluxe double CD (with one disc of
inspired re-mixes) on Cherry Pop Records

Animal Nightlife, jazz, soul, pop music, Shangri-la, Andy Polaris, CD, Cherry Pop Records

CLICK THROUGH TO READ
ANDY POLARIS ON THE MAKING OF SHANGRI-LA
IN PHILADELPHIA

+++Animal Nightlife, jazz, soul, pop music, Shangri-la, Andy Polaris, CD, Deluxe Edition, Cherry Pop Records, Leonardo Chignoli, Paul Waller, Steve Brown, Billy Chapman

WHAT’S IN SHANGRI-LA
THE DELUXE EDITION, 2016,
FROM CHERRY POP RECORDS

The vinyl album has long been deleted and this year’s newly remastered digital Deluxe Edition consists of the album in its original form, plus a second CD containing other singles and extended remixes that were originally available only on 12-inch, including a favourite remix of Native Boy by reggae producer Dennis Bovell. Providing backing vocals on Mr Solitaire, which was recorded in London, is Paul Weller (ex-Jam and later leader of The Style Council), along with David Joseph (Hi Tension, one of the early Brit Soul bands to enjoy chart success). Sadly, a vocal arrangement by Whitney’s mother Cissy Houston on the track Preacher Preacher has not been included and was a joyous sound. (This appeared in its orginal mix only on the European vinyl release.) The Deluxe Edition CDs come with a 16-page booklet with exclusive early live photos and a perceptive biographical interview written by Lois Wilson from Mojo magazine.

DISC 1: SHANGRI-LA

1. NATIVE BOY
2. WAITING FOR THE BAIT TO BITE
3. PERFECT MATCH
4. LOVE IS JUST THE GREAT PRETENDER ’85
5. INSOMNIAZZ
6. BETWEEN LOVERS
7. AFTER HOURS
8. BASIC INGREDIENTS
9. THROW IN THE TOWEL (ALL OVER NOW)
10. BITTERSWEET

DISC 2: BONUS TRACKS

1. PREACHER, PREACHER
2. MR SOLITAIRE (12″ version)
3. LAZY AFTERNOON
4. LOVE IS JUST THE GREAT PRETENDER ’85 (Undressing Remix)
5. PREACHER, PREACHER (TAKE ME TO THE CHURCH) (A Remix)
6. BASIC INGREDIENTS (12″ version)
7. LOVE IS JUST THE GREAT PRETENDER ’85 (12″ version)
8. NATIVE BOY ’83 (Dennis Bovell Remix)
9. MR. SOLITAIRE (Panther Remix)
10. PREACHER, PREACHER (Altered)

Animal Nightlife, jazz, soul, pop music, Shangri-la
Animal Nightlife’s Shangri-la lineup in 1985: Leonardo Chignoli (bass), Steve Brown (guitar), Andy Polaris (vocals), Billy Chapman (saxophone) and Paul Waller (drums)

WHAT THE REVIEWS SAY TODAY

Shapers of the 80s
Lois Wilson supplies some nicely informed sleeve notes identifying Animal Nightlife’s role as innovators when the UK’s thriving underground changed the face of nightclubbing. Animal Nightlife’s swing sound with an electronic twist enjoyed its moment as the hippest trend in music while Polaris penned his own brand of torch song.

godisinthetvzine
Shangri-la in its entirety is possibly one of the easiest listens of the entire decade, sharing both a political and musical ethos with Paul Weller’s band of the time, The Style Council. Indeed, Weller himself was a fan, and even provided backing vocals on their biggest hit.

Three Amazon customers
* Most underrated band of the 80s.

* Three instrumental tracks give us full-on blasts of jazz… Kick off with Disc 2, Track 4: L-O-V-E. Swoon to Andy’s slinky voice, thrill to Billy’s sax and take lessons in syncopation from Paul, Leonardo and Steve. Then get down and dirty with stand-out Track 6, Basic Ingredients.
N-i-i-i-cccce.

* With gems such as Preacher Preacher and Native Boy, this is a fantastic package with the music sounding great.

WHERE TO BUY

Buy Shangri-la direct from Cherry Pop Records in time for Christmas

Buy Shangri-la from a competitive selection of retailers via Amazon

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