Superficially, "Caroline, or Change" and "The Help" are similar. Both are about black maids working for white families in the 1960s South.
Tamarah Lovett, who plays the title role of Caroline Thibodeaux in "Caroline, or Change," jokes that the Columbus State University play opening tonight is "The Help, the Musical."
"Caroline, or Change," said Michelle DeBruyn, is more like an opera than a play. Only a few lines are spoken and everything else is told through singing.
She said it's more like "The Phantom of the Opera," than a conventional musical.
What it's about
Director Becky Becker, associate professor of theater, says unlike "The Help," this play focuses on one family.
At the heart of the story is Noah, an 8-year-old boy, who is played by Rylee Bunton, a 19-year-old freshman.
Bunton, a woman, won the role over male students who auditioned because of her strong singing skills.
Noah is coping with the death of his mother and his father's remarriage. His father, Stuart, played by Jacob Jones, marries his wife's best friend, Rose, played by Joanna Roberts.
His stepmother, Rose, is "trying to bring structure to the household," Becker said. Rose, who is from upstate New York, is attempting to deal with the poverty she sees in the South.
The show's title contains the word "change" and it is seen in two perspectives -- the change that's happening in the South because of the civil rights movement and the change that Noah faces.
Caroline works for Noah's family. Noah sees Caroline struggling to pay her bills and provide food for her family. Noah attempts to help Caroline by leaving change in his pockets. Caroline, who washes the family's clothes, find the change but faces a dilemma.
"It's really about Caroline's problem accepting that money," Becker said. "She feels like she's stealing from the child."
Two music professors from the Schwob School of Music are helping with this production. Paul Hostetter is conducting the 10-person orchestra and DeBruyn is helping the students with singing roles.
"It's a wonderful experience," Hostetter said. "It is a real collaboration."
He echoes DeBruyn, saying conducting this orchestra is like conducting for operas like "La Boheme" or "Tosca."
But he says the musical score leans more toward R&B and gospel. "It's an opera based in R&B and gospel."
Hostetter said the students in the orchestra are "all hungry not only to improve their artistry but they want to get it right."
Hostetter's background includes conducting orchestras in Broadway shows. "I'm really invested in this art form," he said.
The music, he said, is technically, musically and logistically challenging. Logistically because the students have to pay attention to the score. Besides, most of his students were not alive in the period the play is set and some are not familiar with the musical genres played.
DeBruyn says working with theater students is very different than working with her students in the Schwob School.
"Some of them don't read music," she said. "But we've worked through that ... They are all very talented."
It's her first opportunity to work with theater students, but it makes for a very long day. Last Thursday, she had a 7:30 a.m. meeting, taught classes, rehearsed some of her own material and worked with the theater students until 10:30 p.m.
"It's a long day," she said, as she ate her fast food dinner in the rehearsal hall.
The cast speaks
Bunton is the eldest of three children. She has two younger brothers who are 12 and 14. She remembers what they were like at 8, and those memories help her play Noah.
Noah and his father have a difficult relationship.
"I'm still dealing with the loss of my wife," Jones said of his character. Caroline, he said, is the constant in the family.
Noah daydreams of being part of Caroline's family. Caroline is a single mother to Emmie (Jessica Milner), Joe (Pascal Berwise) and Jackie (Sam Gant).
Emmie is "rebellious," Milner said. "She's 16. Noah and I get along very well. He's like another little brother."
And Noah loves Emmie, too, Bunton said.
Alden Burroughs plays the Dryer. His role explores an unsettled side of Caroline.
"I am her anger and frustration as a maid," Burroughs said. "I make it hot."
When Caroline is upset, the dryer makes his presence known, he said.
He also plays the Bus, who transports the maids to the white neighborhoods where they work.
As the Bus, Burroughs delivers the news of John F. Kennedy's assassination. "He kind of represents hope and hope is lost at the moment."
Stephanie Earle, Charlotte Moody and Libba Beaucham play the Supremes-type trio, who make up the radio.
"The Radio is an escape for Caroline," Beaucham said.
"We're the kind of best friend that pokes at you," Earle said. "We help tell her (Caroline's) story."
Milner, who plays Emmie, also plays the Washing Machine.
"I am cool," Milner said. "I am brand new. I'm fresh and I agitate. I poke at Caroline and make her remember things."
The Moon is the soothing "charater," said Brianna Gilliam. "The moon looks over pretty much everybody. The moon nurtures, Noah in particular."
Though a main character is a child, Roberts said "This is not a children's play."
There is a racial aspect to this show, said Nicholas Sostillio, who plays Mr. Stopnick, Rose's father. "I think this is a great way to display that and it's not in a negative way."
"This play will make you laugh, cry and dance," Lovett said.
There's hope, Bunton said.
"And there's change," Sostillio said.