Up for best male actor in a musical at the 2011 Tony Awards was Omaha native Andrew Rannells in The Book of Mormon, the smash show from the creators of South Park that dominated the awards show. A few years before that another Omaha native, John Lloyd Young, was up for and won a Tony for his role in Jersey Boys. All of this reminded me of yet another stage thespian son of Omaha, Kevyn Morrow, who’s enjoyed his own share of theater success, albeit not starring on Broadway, though he’s appeared in several notable Broadway shows. He hasn’t landed a starring or featured role there yet, but that isn’t to say it still can’t happen. He has however made waves on The West End in London and in other theater strongholds. I wrote about Morrow when he was back in town to head the cast of the musical Ragtime for an Omaha Community Playhouse production. The show set records and Morrow and his fellow players received rave reviews. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) charts his journey as a workingman actor in musical theater just outside the heights of Broadway stardom.
More recently, Omaha native Q Smith (Quiana Smith) came back with the Broadway touring production of Mary Poppins to wow her hometown fans. You can find my story on her on this blog. These contemporary actors are following in the tradition of many others from here who’s found success on and off Broadway (Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda, Dorothy McGuire, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Sandy Dennis, Swoosie Kurtz). More will surface with time.
Kevyn Morrow’s Homecoming
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Passion got actor Kevyn Morrow out of Omaha, onto Broadway and to London’s West End, and now it’s taken him home. His triumphant return this spring, by special engagement only, as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in the smash Omaha Community Playhouse production of Ragtime has brought back a conquering hero from the world of theater. Nightly during the six-week run, ending this Sunday, he brings down the house to ovations. Every night is a coronation. In the greeting line afterwards, a reunion unfolds with handshakes and hugs from his childhood teachers, coaches, neighbors and friends as well as from total strangers. It’s a communal embrace that says, Bravo — for making it and sharing it with us.
The warm homecoming pricks his heart. “I treasure the response. I’ve had that kind of response before in my career, but it hasn’t affected me the same way that it does here. It’s kind of overwhelming. I really can’t explain it.”
Long before local wonder boy John Lloyd Young’s Tony Award-winning portrayal of Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys, Morrow paid his dues on Broadway. He was in the original companies of The Scarlett Pimpernel and Smokey Joe’s Cafe, a revival of Dreamgirls and the closing company of A Chorus Line. His big break came years earlier in the national touring company of Chorus Line. He’s fresh off London stage gigs in 125th Street and Ragtime, for which his Walker performance earned him an Olivier Award nod. He’s made films and recurring guest appearances on television. He’s performed with legends Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, Ann-Margret and Cher. But he’s still hungry, still filled with dreams. He wants it all and now that he’s felt the love from his homies, he wants more of that, too.
“I’ve done so much in theater. I love it. It’s my first passion,” said the Northwest High grad. “I’m not where want to get to yet. I’m still on my way. I would like a little more notoriety in terms of my New York work, which seems like it’s coming. It’s just a longer process as a black actor. It’s been a long road — Lord. Anything I may achieve nobody will be able to take it away from me because I will have worked a long time to get there. I got there honestly and with a lot of work. I own it.”
As yet unrealized dreams are to star in his own TV series or land a fixed role in one. He’d like to do more films. Directing for theater — he’s helmed shows here (Chorus Line at the Center Stage) in L.A. and New York — is another ambition. “I would love to come back here and direct something. That’s another segment of my career I’d like to do more of, but I’m still working on performing.”
His Ragtime turn in Omaha, where he was born, raised and married, has whet his appetite for more homecomings. “I really need this more in my life,” he said. “The slower pace. The easier existence. I don’t know how I’m going to achieve that…”
Recognized as a precocious talent here in early adolescence by Claudette Valentine, his piano teacher and church’s music director, Morrow performed in Omaha Public Schools and community theater shows and Omaha Ballet productions. Retired OPS drama teacher Jim Eisenhardt cast him in white roles when that sort of thing raised the ire of bigots. His work with local dancing instructor Valerie Roche led to a Joffrey Ballet scholarship for a summer training program in New York. “I wanted to be the next Arthur Mitchell or the black Mikhail Baryshnikov.”
Seeing his first Broadway shows convinced him the theater was his destiny. His commitment to an actor’s life came when he called his folks to say he was quitting college to tour with Chorus Line. “They realized I wasn’t calling for their permission, I was calling for their blessing. It was my first adult decision. Were they amused? No. Were they supportive? Eventually. They were parents.” They’ve since embraced his career — seeing him perform in New York, Paris, London, etc.
That he’s made the role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. his own speaks to the deep conviction he feels for what he felt fated to play. “When I first saw the movie Ragtime I remember going, ‘God, I would love to play a role like that — an articulate black man in a period piece who’s not chucking and jiving and carrying on. I can’t think of another leading black male musical role where he is your hero- protagonist. It’s a rarity. I knew I was going to play that role someday. I just knew. When it happened to come about for me it seemed serendipitous.”
His experience with it here reminds him good things follow good thoughts.
“I expected it to be really, really good because this is one of those shows people are dying to do. I figured the cream of what Omaha has to offer would be assembled and that’s the case. I didn’t expect it to be as really wonderful as it is. The thing that’s really getting me is these actors really wants to be here. The energy of them coming together…and seeming to enjoy me being with them — it’s like this give and take, back and forth. We’re having a blast. I know I am.”
It’s also confirmation dreams come true for those driven enough to see them through. “You have to believe. You have to have the passion and you have to see it, is what I’ve found,” he said. “And when I don’t see it is when it doesn’t transpire.” He thinks it “would be the bomb” if his appearance here inspires others to follow their star. Dream on Ragtime man, dream on.
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