Cold Cream

Morrie & Miz

* It didn't seem possible to follow the opening of Les Miserables with a completely different type of performance that provided a comparable glow of appreciation of its power and beauty. But it happened on the opening night of Tuesdays with Morrie at the Omaha Community Playhouse. I thought I'd seen Bill Hutson at his best 17 years ago in M. Butterfly. But that was before witnessing his brilliant portrayal of Morrie Schwartz, brimming with life, wisdom and good humor as he dies of Lou Gehrig's disease. It does have another point in common with the magnificent musical that returned last week to the Orpheum. The creators of Les Miz overcame resistance to what begins as the bleak fate of a beaten man to give us soaring redemption. Playwright Jeff Hatcher combined with author Mitch Albom, played by Chris Shonka, to enchant the audience with the most unlikely of love stories as we see Morrie's body decay before our eyes while the man's spirit thrives. It's safe to assume that more than a few readers of these comments are among the millions who've read the book or seen Jack Lemmon on the made-for-television movie, so I won't catalog Morrie's quips and aphorisms. Suffice it to say that director Carl Beck needed little more than Hutson's talent to bring an opening night audience quickly to its feet in a standing ovation. But Beck offered much more, especially an unusually deft performance by Shonka in the difficult role of a sort of straight man to Morrie's dying comedian-philosopher. It's harder to estimate how much impact was added by the director's collaboration with scenic designer Steve Wheeldon and technical director Don Hook, except to note that the rise and fall of a leafy backdrop by artist Michelle Bonker allowed transitions that took nothing away from the dramatic power of the script and the acting. * If it wasn't enough to bask in the beauty of Les Miserables once again and enjoy jaw-dropping use of Victor Hugo's projected paintings, we were treated to a backstage visit with Jean Valjean. Ron Sharpe was generous with his time after a grueling performance, offering souvenirs of the musical he has performed in over 3,500 times. And he showed us how they bring off the dramatic farewell of Inspector Javert as he appears to fall into oblivion. The Nebraska farmer sitting next to me and seeing it for the first time asked how this version compared to others I'd seen. It's still the greatest musical theater ever.

posted at 10:37 pm
on Thursday, May 05th, 2011

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