ADULTS AND KIDS DO 'Les Miz'
Omaha Community Playhouse
Where: 6915 Cass St., Hawks Mainstage
When: Wednesday through Oct. 27; 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $40 adults, $24 students. No discounts available.
Information: 402-553-0800 or omahaplayhouse.com
Skutt High School
Where: 3131 S. 156th St.
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 24, 26, 31 and Nov. 2; 2 p.m. Oct. 27 and Nov. 3
Tickets: $6 adults, $4 students, $20 VIP reserved
It's the first Tuesday night after “Les Misérables” has opened at the Omaha Community Playhouse. After exhausting weeks of rehearsal and a stamina-testing opening, cast members are enjoying a blissful night off.
All but one.
Timothy Shew, the Broadway veteran playing leading man Jean Valjean at the Playhouse, is in the central commons of Skutt High School, immersed in rehearsal.
Skutt is opening — what else — “Les Misérables” Oct. 24, even before the Playhouse version has closed. Shew brims with energy as he helps the kids with the show's opening, including the bit where Valjean steals the bishop's candlesticks.
“Everything is not going your way, and you're ready to explode,” he coaches Zachary Pohlman, a Skutt senior playing Valjean. “Everybody has slapped you in the face. You're still in that raw world of prison.”
Pohlman visibly changes as he absorbs backstory and motivation at the hands of a master. The scene's emotional impact deepens.
A few minutes later, Shew is tweaking a big chorus number, making the kids laugh as he reminds them to chew on consonants so the words are understood, to pick up their energy, to develop individual characters who react to everything unfolding around them.
“That is, like, leaps and bounds ahead of when I last left you,” he tells them after a run-through, “so congratulations.” Then it's back to more refining.
After playing Valjean more than 1,600 times, including two years on Broadway, Shew has every second of “Les Misérables” imprinted on his brain. Maybe even his soul.
“I'm a preacher's kid,” he explains. “Also a preacher's brother, son, nephew and grandson. My mom was a preacher's kid.” He once heard his grandfather preach a sermon about Jean Valjean. He doesn't believe that's coincidence.
Shew, 54, says the spiritual journey of Valjean, from bitter ex-con to a transformed man who believes his soul belongs to God, was written for him to play. It's in his marrow.
He was 27 when he first auditioned for what turned out to be the role of his life. At a 1987 open call in New York City that drew 550, Shew was 285th in line. He sang 16 bars of “Being Alive” from “Company,” and a casting director remembered him from a “Dreamgirls” callback years before. Did he know anything from “Les Misérables”?
Shew had seen Colm Wilkinson sing “Bring Him Home,” Valjean's signature tune, at the show's Kennedy Center previews in Washington, D.C., before it arrived in New York. “I think I can do that,” he said.
But he didn't have music. The casting director said to borrow it from someone waiting to audition. But a woman in line refused to lend it. Like the bishop's candlesticks, he grabbed it from her clutched hands and ran.
Unlike Valjean, he wasn't arrested. Eight callbacks later, having hired an accompanist, a vocal coach and studio time, Shew thought he was prepared for a final audition. But director Trevor Nunn had him sight-read the prologue. He blew it — twice.
“Then Nunn said, 'Timothy, breathe.' It was the greatest direction I've ever had. I got the part before eight of the 15 guys at that audition got to sing.”
Four days later, he was Wilkinson's understudy, then understudy to the second Valjean on Broadway, Gary Morris.
Shew became Broadway's third Valjean in May 1988. He played the role in the 1991 national tour, in an Australian tour and again on Broadway from September 1999 to March 2000. He played it in regional theater in Vermont in 2008.
Susan Baer Collins, who's directing “Les Misérables” at the Playhouse, is glad Shew was willing to play the role one more time.
“What Tim brings to the show is great openness and encouragement,” Collins said. “The first words out of his mouth to the cast were that this is an ensemble show, and it takes everybody onstage to make it work.”
Shew raises the bar by example, Collins said. Julie Crowell, who plays ill-fated single mother Fantine in the show, agreed.
“It's amazing to learn from a professional,” she said. “His diction, how he rehearses, the control he has of his voice, his breath.
He has a sense of rehearsal technique I'd never learned.”
His grasp of the story led him to share with Crowell what it was like when his first wife died of HIV (from a tainted blood transfusion) in 1997, describing her final moments of life. Crowell had held her own mother in her arms when she died. So, when the two play Fantine's death scene onstage, they bring something shared and personal — something more — to that moment.
Jennifer Tritz, who plays Valjean's adopted daughter, Cosette, said the thought of sharing a scene with a Broadway actor was intimidating initially. But Shew was so open and welcoming, she said, he quickly put her at ease.
It helped when he told Tritz, Joe O'Connor and Abbie Stewart in rehearsal that he'd never heard their vocal trio on “A Heart Full of Love” sung better. “I didn't even know what to say at that point,” Tritz said.
Shew said this Midwestern cast reminds him of his own roots. Born in Grand Forks, N.D., he moved with the family to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when his father got a preaching job there. He lived there eight years, graduating from Kennedy High School.
He missed graduation from Milliken University in Decatur, Ill., to take a summer stock theater job. Between summer stock seasons, he toured through 48 states with the Norman Luboff Choir for three years before moving to New York City at age 22.
As a struggling actor establishing himself, he was a waiter and bartender all up and down Manhattan's East Side. He taught music to pre-kindergartners at an Episcopalian school. He snagged some TV commercial work. He met his first wife while he was a singing waiter in Greenwich Village. When she died, their son was just 6.
Luckily, Shew said, he found steady work on Broadway while raising his son as a single father. Jonathan spent a lot of evenings backstage, watching Dad perform in “Guys & Dolls,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”
Jonathan and Shew's second wife, Jane Brockman, are also working actors. Currently, she's Madame Morrible and he's Fiero in the national tour of “Wicked.”
Timothy Shew said his years in cancer wards led him to perform for children with terminal illness, to help them find humor and still be themselves. He does theater workshops for kids in New York City. He also works with kids at Showchoir Camps of America every summer he's available, because “my choir director in Cedar Rapids, James Kimmel, invented show choirs.”
Chris Storm, Skutt's choir director, reached out to Shew when the school decided to do “Les Misérables.” Shew had signed on to work with Storm and theater director Mark Schnitzler's cast even before he got the Playhouse gig, a happy coincidence. The kids got more time with Shew than originally planned.
“They're so eager. They're me 30 years ago. And when they get it, I just love those moments. We'll do some character work and sprinkle a little 'Les Miz' on everybody.”
Like Valjean, he says, he has the opportunity to use what life has taught him for the good of others.
“The kids at Skutt are lucky to have him,” Collins said.