Kelly: Regular Joes give special energy to Omaha Community Playhouse's 'Les Miz' -
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Joseph T. O'Connor II, whose day job is sewer inspector, plays a character in 'Les Misérables' whose life is saved by Jean Valjean —- in a sewer. O'Connor is one of many unpaid volunteers and actors who are devoting three months of late nights to the Omaha Community Playhouse production.(RYAN SODERLIN / THE WORLD-HERALD)
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Julie Crowell, who has had lead roles in other musicals, says the opportunity to play Fantine is “absolutely a blessing from heaven.”(CHRISTIAN M. ROBERTSON / OMAHA COMMUNITY PLAYHOUSE)

Kelly: Regular Joes give special energy to Omaha Community Playhouse's 'Les Miz'
By Michael Kelly / World-Herald columnist

By day, a sewer inspector. By night, a character whose life is saved — in a sewer.

That unlikely coincidence describes 24-year-old Joseph T. O'Connor II, who sings the role of Marius in “Les Misérables” at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

The ambitious production of “Les Miz,” the most expensive in Playhouse history, is drawing full or mostly full houses, fans who are enjoying professional-quality performances.

But it's the nature of community theater — where the folks onstage are unpaid volunteers such as Joe — that the singers and actors work day jobs, too.

“They start in the morning, work a full day, then shake it off and come to the Playhouse,” said director Susan Baer Collins. “I don't know where the energy comes from.”

Daytime occupations among the cast include physician, federal public defender, Air Force captain, charity auctioneer, administrative assistant, sales manager, insurance agent, IT systems manager and business development representative, as well as students and vocal music teachers.

The show, set in 19th-century France, features one professional: Broadway veteran Timothy Shew in the lead role of Jean Valjean. He admires the talents of the local performers.

“Everybody has risen to the occasion and beyond,” Shew said. “I don't know how they do it, either. They somehow are able to dig really deep and find the energy and creativity to totally immerse themselves in the task at hand. And they do it with grace and poise and such confidence.”

After O'Connor's character, the rebel Marius, is shot at the barricade, his life is saved by Jean Valjean, who finds the only way out: carrying him through the sewers.

Though they never break character in front of audiences, Shew said he has whispered to O'Connor out of view, “How was your sewer job today?” Or, “You spend all day working with sewers and here you are, back in one.”

The role of Fantine (which won an Oscar for actress Anne Hathaway) is sung by Julie Crowell, 37, manager of used-car sales for Widman Motors at 49th and L Streets. She is a veteran of lead roles in musicals.

“This surpasses them all,” she said. “It's absolutely a blessing from heaven.”

She had a scare a week or so before opening night. She felt as though she was losing her voice, and a doctor found two polyps on her vocal cords.

A speech pathologist, Mary Underwood, attended rehearsals and taught Crowell how to protect her voice. Crowell will see the physician again after the show ends.

For the most part in community theater, there are no understudies. (Child roles in this production do have them.)

Had Crowell been unable to sing, director Collins had another cast member in mind to quickly get ready for that major role.

The Playhouse in the past has sent cars for cast members whose vehicles broke down or who had other problems. It's always a worry.

“I've had a lot of phone calls in my career,” the director said. “You're waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Years ago, Collins herself took the stage at the last minute — with script in hand — after an actress became too ill to perform in “O Pioneers.”

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

But Collins said community theater performers typically do whatever they can to protect themselves and to get through shows even if they don't feel well.

Crowell, who is also a licensed massage therapist, said she is especially careful about her health during show runs.

“I am the queen of hand sanitizers,” she said. “I have a pump on my desk at work and in the dressing room, too. My roommate teaches fourth grade, and she came home with a bad cold. I said, 'Stay away from me!' ”

On his day job, O'Connor doesn't actually go into sewers, but he inspects them from people's homes, using a long cable “snake.” For three years, he has worked full time for Roto-Rooter.

A 2007 graduate of Ralston High, he has leading-man looks and a voice to match.

“I'm really proud of Joe,” Collins said. “He acts the part as well as he sings it.”

She has worked with him in past Playhouse productions. And a year or so ago, when major sewer work was underway near her home and nearby houses had to be checked, she was surprised when the smiling Roto-Rooter inspector who rang her doorbell was none other than Joe O'Connor.

His day job, he said, includes “a lot of physical labor,” but the 3½-month process of rehearsals and shows for “Les Miz” also is “kind of exhausting.”

But he said it's worth it.

“It's just a dream role, and definitely a part I wanted,” he said. “But auditions were terrifying. I got the call-back for the part along with other guys who were just as talented, in the same age range and looked perfectly fine for the role.”

About 350 people auditioned for “Les Miz,” and 33 were cast. Rehearsals started in July 14 — Bastille Day — and the show runs through Oct. 27. That's a long run.

Seats are still available, and your best chances are for Wednesday and Thursday evenings.

Besides the 33 talented people you see, there are many others you don't see, including the pit orchestra, stagehands, costumers, carpenters and others.

This production of “Les Misérables” is a landmark for the Omaha Community Playhouse, which calls itself the nation's largest community theater.

Folks who donate loads of time and talent are technically amateurs, but no one calls this show amateurish. “Les Miz” is entirely sung, and theatergoers are singing the praises of this community cast — people who, like most of us, get up and go to work each day.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story inaccurately attributed the above photo of Julie Crowell to World-Herald staff photographer Ryan Soderlin. The photo was taken by Christian M. Robertson for the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

Contact the Omaha World-Herald newsroom

Copyright ©2014 Omaha World-Herald®. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, displayed or redistributed for any purpose without permission from the Omaha World-Herald.

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