MNfusion: Q&A with Kirsten deLohr Helland
Katie Fraser, MNFusion 7/31/16
The curtains are rising on St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts’ 2016–2017 theater season.
And the first show to grace the stage is Lerner & Loewe’s classic musical, “Paint Your Wagon.”
The western tells the story of a small California town that gets swept up in the gold rush. Swarmed by hundreds seeking riches, the town becomes an epicenter of culture, romance and greed. Then, as soon as it has come it is gone.
The show, which hadn’t had a major New York production in almost 65 years, underwent a revisal in 2015. After opening in Seattle, the revised production is now touring the country and its first stop is in St. Paul.
Actress Kirsten deLohr Helland, who plays Jennifer Rumson, spoke about what is new in this revised production and how, despite the Gold Rush being over 150 years old, its themes of greed, romance and hope are still prevalent today.
This certainly isn’t the first period musical you’ve been in, as you’ve had rolls in Oklahoma and The Sound of Music. But, tell me, how does this show differ from some of your more recent work?
deLohr Helland: Most of the roles that I’ve had the opportunity to play in the last few years have been from more contemporary musicals. I feel very at home in the pop/rock musical genre, playing dirty, rough and tough young women or tomboys (think Rizzo in Grease, or Whatsername in American Idiot). Playing Jennifer in Paint Your Wagon has been a wonderful journey down a road I’ve rarely been down. Not only is she an ingénue but she is a lady of the highest degree—both roles I’ve not had many opportunities to play. While some parts of this character were challenging for me, other parts came easier than I expected. I rarely get to show off the softer side of my voice. This role has given me the chance to show that muscle off and continue to stretch it.
You mention that some parts of the character were challenging, what specifically challenged you? How do you identify with your character?
deLohr Helland: Jennifer is a very strong and independent young woman. She says what is on her mind and loves with her whole heart. She stands up for herself and protects those she loves. My greatest challenge, though it may sound crazy, was learning how to be the definition of “ladylike.” My whole career, I’ve been playing characters who are wildly different from Jennifer and it took some time to learn how to reign my wild energy in for this softer girl. I truly love her.
That’s great that this show is giving you the opportunity to take on a new type of character that you’re not as familiar with. Aside from that, what is the most challenging thing about this production?
deLohr Helland: The most challenging thing about this production for me is staying energized and warmed up between the opening number and the end of Act 1. I play a bit role in the opening number and then disappear until I become Jennifer. When I enter the show at the end of Act 1, I have to enter the world of the show with the same energy and commitment that every other actor has been giving for the last hour. Often times I’ll go down to the deck and watch scenes and songs from offstage to help immerse myself into the show’s energy before I join.
It must be fun to be a spectator of sorts as well! Tell me, what is your favorite scene/song from the show?
deLohr Helland: One hundred percent hands down, my favorite part of the show is “Whoop-Ti-Ay!” There is such powerful storytelling in both the choreography and the music. And, it’s just plain fun. It makes me smile every time I watch it.
The name alone makes it sound like a very fun song! So, what is the biggest change from the original “Paint Your Wagon” in this “revisal?”
deLohr Helland: A lot of the bones are the same. Songs, characters and general ideas have all stayed fairly similar. Big changes come in the orchestrations and with the addition, and specificity, of the ensemble. [There are] lots of brand new stories to follow in our men’s ensemble.
So, why is it, do you think, a period piece like “Paint Your Wagon” continues to resonate with audiences?
deLohr Helland: The show deals with issues that we continue to struggle with in our world today. Hate, racism, fear and greed are all present forces in this story. But, so is the desire to overcome them and find peace, love and community. If you can relate to even one of those things, to the desire to want to make the world a better and more peaceful place, you will feel why the story is still an important one.
The show opened in Seattle and is visiting St. Paul as its first stop on tour. What excites you about introducing this revisal to Minnesota audiences?
deLohr Helland: This show has been produced a teeny handful of times since it was first staged. Most likely, if you’ve seen Paint Your Wagon at all, you’ve only seen the movie. This revisal is going to be many people’s first live introduction to the show and it’s an absolute honor to be a part of that audience experience.