• October 2, 2014

‘Caroline, or Change’ debuts tonight at VLA

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Posted: Friday, February 7, 2014 4:30 am

Some theater rehearsals are sedate — with director, cast and crew revisiting familiar territory. The umpteenth revival of “Oklahoma,” “The Odd Couple” and the like are relatively straightforward for community theater groups, since they’ve been staged so many times.

That’s not the case at Killeen’s Vive Les Arts Theatre, which is deep into rehearsals for “Caroline, or Change,” a challenging, powerful musical that incorporates a through-sung script (only two spoken lines — all other dialogue is sung) with a musical score that combines Motown, folk, classical, spirituals and Jewish klezmer music.

Add in inanimate objects like the radio, washing machine, clothes dryer and a bus — all of which come to life and sing — and you’ve got what could be a genre-bending, demanding director’s nightmare.

Fortunately for VLA, the woman in charge of the show, director Toschia Moffett, is up to the challenge. An attorney in her nontheatrical life, she also has an extensive resume in theater and music, including shows at Austin’s Zachary Scott Theatre.

Moving past an ensemble of three actors rehearsing with choreographer Kristen Kerr-Fields on the proscenium stage, Moffett pointed out the washer and dryer props, out of which two singers will pop. “You’ve got to see the bus,” she said, and pulled back a curtain to reveal a colorful, wheel-mounted city bus prop, which will be propelled and steered by another singing actor.

The theater’s lobby was full of cast members, musical director Jim Wrex, pianist Christie Dawson and the principal, Lala Johnson in the role of Caroline. Stage director Dawn Hellman, of Copperas Cove, discussed onstage blocking with actors in the adjacent parlor.

Johnson, a staff sergeant at Fort Hood, was enthusiastic: “I’ve been singing as long as I’ve been talking,” she said. “It’s brand new, and I’m so stoked to be doing this show.”

In the role of Mr. Stopnick, a Northerner with a liberal bent, is acting veteran Buzz Rahm, of Temple. “This will be my 71st show,” he said. “I’m so blessed to be part of this cast, and she (Johnson) sounds just like Nina Simone.”

This production even has the theatrical luxury of its own seamstress: Sue Morrisey was busily altering costumes backstage, noting “about 20 actors — a lot of separate pieces — and everyone is excited to have something made just for them.”

“Caroline, or Change” tells the story of a black maid for a Jewish family in Louisiana. Her wages are $30 a week (it’s 1963), which she supplements with coins left in the pockets of laundry from the family. Set during the civil rights movement, money turns up missing, relationships are ruptured and Caroline is forced to face the reality of the changing social scene. The play’s background encompasses the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War and the nonviolent protests organized by Martin Luther King Jr.

Asked to sum up the audience appeal of the message-laden play, Moffett doesn’t hesitate. “If you liked the movie ‘The Help,’ then you’ll enjoy this musical.”

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