Friday, April 30, 2010

Paul Helm brings harmonic joy to Alexander

By Mithra Ballesteros, First Stage Children's Theater

Drawing of Mr. Helm on stage during ALEXANDER by student at Doerfler Elementary School

Like a well-known fiddler on a familiar roof, Paul Helm and his piano sit high above the action of ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY.  The musician does not speak but his fingers continually stroll the keys, providing the show with its heartbeat.  Mr. Helm looks comfortable on his unsecured bench atop the giant toy block, but what audiences don't know is how hard he worked on a score that is almost a character in the story.   

Throughout the rehearsal process, Mr. Helm rearranged and adapted the original score, written by Shelly Markham. To accommodate children's voices, Helm changed keys.  He added harmonies and doo-wops to expand the vocals for an ensemble. He wrote transitions to maintain tension.  He created measures with cues to help synchronize lights and sound.  Mr. Helm says that the work was really satisfying. "Music really provides a continuous flow for those moments in the script where the audience sees action without dialogue.  And there was a lot of that sort of stage direction in the script to underscore. It took improvisation and trial and error to get it right but what a great learning experience." 

During the performance, Mr. Helm pays close attention to the scene unfolding below him.  His musical underscore provides pacing for the actors, eases transitions, and keeps the play moving for the audience.  He sets the mood too, delivering driving beats in the rock-inspired "If I Were in Charge of the World", adding calypso and reggae spice to "Australia", and getting spunky with the keyboard on the jazzy and fun "Shoes".  Says Helm, "I love music from the 50's and 60's, and you can hear that in these arrangements."

Audiences love Alexander.  His story resonates for kids who know what it means to have little control when life gets rough.  But the plot is simple and the music helps to deepen the message.  The closing ballad, "The Sweetest of Nights and the Brightest of Days", contains very pretty, wistful lyrics about a mother's hopes for her child.  When actress Melinda Pfundstein tenderly sings to her son, "I wish you arms open wide to embrass your tomorrows," Helm's slow melodic playing eases the audience to a heartfelt finish.

Photo of Paul Helm with Koala cast taken by Mark Frohna

No comments: