Two of some 15 shows (!) opening this past weekend, Village Theatre’s SNAPSHOTS and Arts West’s AMERICAN IDIOT also share two familiar, mega-talented and very different leading ladies, Beth DeVries and Kirsten DeLohr Helland. DeVries has won the hearts and ears of fans in such shows as THE MUSIC MAN (Marian), THE KING & I (Anna), NEXT TO NORMAL (Diana), and in concerts of BARNUM (Chairy), FOLLIES (Phyllis) and NINE (Luisa). DeLohr Helland has essayed a wide range of roles including Ilse in SPRING AWAKENING, Siren in LIZARD BOY, Kate Monster in AVENUE Q, Babe in THE PAJAMA GAME, and Ado Annie in OKLAHOMA! and upcoming this holiday season Maria in the 5th Avenue’s THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Both actresses were strong components of the success in LES MISERABLES two seasons ago at Village, where DeVries was the doomed Fantine, while DeLohr Helland tackled the feisty Eponine. And both actresses have been known for numerous appearances in New Work readings at Village and the 5th. This week the ladies launched their two latest shows and roles, and as both are old friends, kindly gave of their sparse free time to comment on them.
Beth De Vries takes on the character of Sue in SNAPSHOTS, a book musical by David Stern, culling its musical numbers from the vast Stephen (WICKED, GODSPELL, PIPPIN) catalogue. “I did a workshop of it at Village in 2005 and then two years later in Palo Alto. Every time Stephen Schwartz writes a new musical or film, some songs got replaced and some added. This go around for example there is a number from the Amy Adams/Patrick Dempsey semi-animated film Enchanted, but the story by David Stern, about a couple, Sue and Dan (played by three men and three women each) throughout a lengthy marriage hasn’t changed.”
But surely 10 years of living has informed her portrayal? “Oh yes…I was really excited to do this show again, because now my husband Chad & I have been married as long as this couple has, twenty years. To see what they, and Chad & I have gone through is really kind of scary, with all the similarities. That’s a lovely thing about this show, it’s a truly universal story, which a lot couples can relate to aspects of. The first time I did this show our daughter was two, and she broke her leg so severely that she had to spend a few nights in the hospital when we were in performances. And we had no understudies. I remember her falling asleep with anesthesia and saying “Bye honey, Mommy has to go to work!” That was when it really hit me how challenging this career and a family can be to juggle. I adore working again with Hugh Hastings who I did SNAPSHOTS with the last 2 times and whose wife I also played in THE TUTOR. The whole cast is just lovely. They’d better be because we’re together on this one for 5 ½ months, from Issaquah, to Everett, to Arizona, so we had better like each other! That time in Arizona will be in the dead of winter here in Seattle, so I can’t wait!”
Has it been grand working directly with Stephen Schwartz? “Yes it has. He got in on Sunday and is here through opening night, and the other two times I worked on it he also showed up, and worked us through some scenes, and offered his own opinions, and a very specific vision, and he’s worked on this show all over the country. It’s been a blast meeting him, working with him again, and working through things with him the past couple days. An interesting thing about this show is that all 3 sets of actors play the same people over a lengthy relationship. So you work at picking up the little characteristics of mimic speech patterns, physicalities that the other gals have, has been challenging and really fun. You have a responsibility to what they have come up with. Mallory King as little Susie plays her from 12-22, and Susan from 22 to 45 is played by Tracy McDowell, a New Yorker, and I love them both. And a lot of the songs in the show are mashups with 2-3 other songs, so you go from a Wicked, The Baker’s Wife and Pippin. Lyrics are sometimes changed to fit the story while some are the original lyrics. In Act 2 we hit the audience with 5 or 6 moments that get to the heart of the issues this couple is having. That sequence of songs is probably my favorite part of the show.” Beth is a person who exudes a motherly sort of affection mixed with a refreshingly bawdy and zany side. She would like Steve Tomkins at VT to know that she and Hugh Hastings are ready to do I DO! I DO! next. And I want to reassure you Beth, you didn’t say anything stupid!
Kirsten DeLohr Helland essays the role of Whatsername in Arts West’s AMERICAN IDIOT, a show only seen here obviously in its National Tour, but Kirsten hadn’t seen that and only knew it from the album. And getting cast in the role was rather easy, as frequent past director and friend Eric Ankrim offered it to her! “It’s really humbling to know that a director knows and trusts you will be successful, before you know yourself. And I heard that the dance audition was hard, so I was not sad to miss it. “What are the vocal demands of this role? “Vocally, Whatsername doesn’t have a very difficult vocal track. The OBC album is, and I didn’t know this when I heard it, auto-tuned, so most of the women sound the same. I thought, oh wow I am all over this show, and come to find that I sing like one and a half songs! This is great because the songs I do sing are incredibly vocally challenging. “Letter Bomb”, which is my big number towards the end of the show is really challenging. The initial A.I. album version Green Day wrote and recorded wasn’t written for women’s voices. Then they put it on the Broadway with men and women. And it is difficult to sing in that very specific timbre, with that really raw rock quality that is needed. I can definitely sing it, but it helped that I had come off of doing two shows, Lizard Boy and Grease, which required me to sing that rock way anyway. I do things like “primal scream” for 2 measures. How do you sing that in a healthy way??? That’s been the hardest thing. And not making it sound like Green Day, but like a woman singing Green Day. In a healthy way. And I can still talk too!”
Eric Ankrim and Arts West are approaching this show in an audacious, in your face way. Clearly something that appeals to KDH. “This is not your normal show where you come in and sit in a seat and see a show in a proscenium, which is what most Seattle audiences are very used to. Eric’s vision is very unique. He wanted to make this a production where at any point you could be walking, in any part of the theatre and see the action. It’s awesome, insane and very creative. We are doing something no one has ever done before in Seattle. We do not have any kind of a box to recreate. We are creating the box. But for audiences who buy an observational ticket and see the show the way you would any other production. If you buy an immersive ticket you will be walking around the theatre, following characters as they go offstage, and into their world downstairs on both sides of the stage, and continue to see their storyline even though the scene has ended. You see things the observational folks will never see which is an amazing bonus. We call them little nuggets. Where an entire group moves and you see something downstairs, or an actor pulls one person away and they have their own little moment, with the audience saying “Hey wait. Where is that guy going? It’s an amazing active challenge, to not get a break, and always be in character. This was not in the script. We are making little scene-lets for ourselves without straying from the storyline. I love it, it’s so much fun. It’s been one of the most challenging things that I’ve done in Seattle, but I love a challenge. And now that we have done this, I think that an immersive show is something that Eric Ankrim will do again, and I so hope I am in that show!”
This young actress, a Gig Harbor native and a 5th Avenue High School awards winner less than a decade back, is no longer one of the new kids in town, but working with a group of young thespians in the A.I. ensemble has been eye-opening and heartening for her. “I came into this rehearsal process a bit late because I was still in GREASE, and I went, “Wow was I ever that young?” It’s so weird in that we’re not that different in age, most are just out of high school, or in or just out of college. It’s their energy and the raw passion. Everything is magical. I don’t think that I’ve lost that at all, but I allocated it in a different way. When you’re younger you get excited about everything, and your energy is all over the place. Where I am now in my career I have a responsibility to stay healthy, and strong, be able to give 120% of myself to the roles I have chosen and been hired for. The younger kids in this cast, their passion was so amazing. It is truly a beautiful thing to watch young performers perform. I love it. I want to be a kid again!”
And finally what shows does she have in her viewfinder to do? “I want to be in EVERY Sondheim show ever written. Especially SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, which I think touches the hearts of anyone and everyone with artistic blood in their veins. Someday I hope to play Dot, but if someday someone wants to do a gender swap version I would love to play Georgette! We’re getting crazy now in musical theatre. We can do anything.”