September 26, 2013 by
Photography by Omaha Community Playhouse

Just as in a certain M. Night Shyamalan “I see dead people” film, the color red is used almost as code in the Omaha Community Playhouse blockbuster production of the much-anticipated Les Misérables.

Early scenes are an ocean of jute-hued tatters in the musical based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel—the one about the most famous loaf of bread in all of literature—before a riotous red-redder-reddest bloom of rebellion explodes amid flaming vermillion muzzle flashes against the backdrop of a crimson flag soaked in the blood of martyrs as the curtain comes crashing down on the first act.

It’s enough to leave you breathless, but you won’t have to wait for the penultimate scene before intermission to be awestruck. Timothy Shew has played the can’t-catch-a-break ex-con lead as Jean Valjean 1,600 times, most of them on Broadway, and he knows every nuance of his character. Shew soars in such memorable numbers as “Bring Him Home,” “What Have I Done?”, and “Who Am I?”

Savvy theatregoers may have wondered if casting the seasoned veteran against mere community theatre mortals may have set up a catch-22 situation, where the contrast between talents was simply too great. Hold on a sec. Guilty of employing a non sequitur just now. After all, savvy Omaha theatregoers will not be the least surprised to learn that an Omaha Community Playhouse ensemble can hold their own and so much more on this, the city’s greatest of stages.

To punctuate the point of “top-to-bottom” professionalism, let’s start at…well, not exactly the bottom but a smallish role.

If stealing scenes were a felony, Megan McGuire would be doing a life stretch in Sing Sing Prison. She plays the bosomy, bawdy innkeeper’s wife. When paired against her polar opposite, the reedy and angular—and (sigh) seldom seen—Cork Ramer, their hilariously show-stopping antics of avarice and skullduggery become worth the price of a ticket alone.

Speaking of show-stoppers in this epic that spans three decades of early 19th century Paris, word on the street is that—just as this reviewer found on opening night—one of the loudest ovations in a show chock full of them is directed at Abigael Stewart, whose jilted character, Eponine, resolves herself to a life of being “On My Own.”

Stewart, when joined by Jennifer Tritz’s piercing soprano (the charming adult Cosette) and Joseph O’Connor’s lush tenor (the dashing guerrilla warrior, Marius) you’re in for a romantic, melt-in-your-seat moment, even as you come to realize that “A Heart Full of Love” carries a dread sense of foreboding for one member of this most lilting of romantic triangles.

Other favorites include Joseph Dignoti as Inspector Javert, the tenacious cop with a stomach-rumbling baritone, who obsesses about the aforementioned loaf of bread before making the most dramatic of exits (gravity, the river Seine).

This monumental effort is sure to be remembered as the most fitting of swan songs for outgoing Omaha Community Playhouse legends, associate artistic director Susan Baer Collins, who directs Les Miz, and artistic director Carl Beck, who this time works as assistant director. But it doesn’t mean that this production is not without a couple of curiosities. The turntable installed for this show works to great éclat in many scenes, especially the famous barricade battle. Am I alone in thinking that, in others, it seems to perhaps try a bit too hard in the sense of “We’ve built this darn thing, now how the heck can we use it?”

My biggest pet peeve (my, reviewers can be picky!) centers on that iconic red flag. Perhaps I had set my expectations too high in hoping that the banner would be fashioned from acres of fabric, and that it would consume the entire fiery stage when unfurled, but the scale of the one waved here is just a bit…underwhelming.

No, I didn’t just use the word “underwhelming” in a review of such a wondrous achievement as the Omaha Community Playhouse production of Les Miz, did I? Nothing, even the grating idiosyncrasies of a finicky critic can detract from the magnificence that is Les Misérables.

Les Misérables runs through Oct. 27 at the Omaha Community Playhouse. For tickets and additional information, visit omahaplayhouse.com or call 402-553-0800.

David Williams, the recently named managing editor of Omaha Publications, has written hundreds of performing arts reviews for a number of area publications and formerly served on the board of the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards.

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