Caroline, Or Change, National Theatre Lyttelton, London

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The Independent Culture

The "change" in the title of this brave, beautiful musical - book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, music by Jeanine Tesori - signifies both nickels and dimes and the aim of the Civil Rights Movement to shift the tectonic plates of a racist society.

Set in 1963 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, with the assassination of JF Kennedy one of the offstage events, this musical is a marvel.

A new "tuner" boasting deeply adult thinking and a low-key way of entwining the personal and the political is rare enough. But here's the twist; it's also been artfully designed so that you'd want to take your children to it - for the magic as well as the message.

In the basement of the house where Caroline, the black maid and mother-of-three works, the appliances have human personalities - the radio is a trio of sassy soul-singing sisters; the dryer puts the "big" in Little Richard. Events are overlooked by a gorgeous Lorca-esque moon. And Tesori's splendid sung-through score, set to Kushner's agile, loose-limbed lyrics, makes seamless shifts between a whole range of idioms: proto-R&B, a wailing klezmer clarinet, operatic gestures, spiritual and hip reworkings of Christmas carols.

Eight-year-old, bright, Jewish Noah (Perry Millward) resents the presence of his new stepmother Rose (Anna Francolini) and tries to bond down in the basement with Caroline. Rose, who's determined to sort Noah out, devises a reproving game whereby Caroline gets to keep any loose change that the boy leaves in his laundry. It's a misguided ruse: it gives the lonely Noah delusions of being the benefactor of Caroline's single-parent family; it gives her children false hopes. And when Noah leaves his $20 Chanukah present in his pocket, things get ugly; Rose pretends that she is going to keep it, uncorking a great blast of racist frustration from the boy, to which (to her shame) she replies in kind.

Kushner adroitly links these domestic upsets to outside turmoil. In Caroline (Tonya Pinkins, superb), he has created a heroine who goes against all the genre's norms. Her climactic number is not a defiant display of self-assertion, but a plea to God to kill her hopes because a mother in her position can't afford change. It's her daughter Emmie (Pippa Bennett-Warner) who'll become the radical.

The staging by George C Wolfe is a pictorial joy. Caroline, or Change makes a delightful change from the usual no-brainer musical.

To 4 January (020-7452 3000)

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