Drama Mamas

Two actresses turn Jewish Repertory Theatre of Nevada into a potent cultural player


Norma Morrow and Charlene Sher are local theater’s first ambassadors to The Smith Center.

Quickly, quietly, courageously, they have advanced the cause.

How about a hand—hell, a Standing “O”—for the Vegas-based Jewish Repertory Theatre of Nevada, second only to The Smith Center for the Performing Arts as the best new thread in the cultural fabric of our city.

Don’t know ’em? Know ’em now:

Chronic underdogs that they are, community theater groups hunger for broader recognition beyond their narrow patron bases. Some doggedly schedule full seasons. Too many anemically mount one or two productions annually. Enter Jewish Repertory Theatre of Nevada, born in 2010, financed by two committed actresses’ personal investment of $30,000 each, enriched by their professional contacts, and powered by serious follow-through yielding impressive results.

“We’ve had a quick ascent and that’s been very exciting,” says cofounder Norma Morrow, who launched the ensemble with Charlene Sher, her costar when the two appeared in Nevada Conservatory Theatre’s The Diary of Anne Frank at UNLV. “This was the one big thing that was missing [in Las Vegas], which was actual professional theater.”

Given how the company has fired up the jets on the local theater scene—nabbing professional, recognizable actors; booking Broadway and off-Broadway shows into Vegas; importing Tony-nominated Golda’s Balcony, making history as the first play in The Smith Center—it’s dispiriting that its profile is not sufficiently soaring. Blame a likely combination of apathy toward community theater, and a perception problem as a niche—read: Jewish—ensemble.

“We wanted to start off with a niche that we could draw from initially, but I think it’s misperceived now because so many people believe we do only Jewish things. But we are totally global in the work we choose,” Sher says, adding: “One of our biggest donors is non-Jewish, the private bank of Nevada State Bank [an offshoot of the bank for select clients]. They helped us when we had nothing.”

Owing to friendships and connections with fellow union performers in Actors’ Equity, Morrow and Sher have coaxed veteran film/TV/theater actors to trek to Vegas for their productions. Among their “gets” who have all appeared in their shows at Summerlin’s Adelson Educational Campus:

Catherine Hicks (7th Heaven, Star Trek IV) in Moss Hart’s Light up the Sky; Craggy-faced character actor Stephen Macht (General Hospital, Raid on Entebbe, Sharon Gless’ love interest in Cagney and Lacey); Michael Durrell (Tori Spelling’s dad in the original Beverly Hills 90210) in Neil Simon’s Rumors; Steve Vinovich (Cold Case, Everybody Loves Raymond, Malcolm in the Middle) in The Sisters Rosensweig; and Joel Brooks (Six Feet Under, Ally McBeal) in The Last Night of Ballyhoo. (Included in Brooks’ résumé is a classic M*A*S*H episode in which he played a hilariously amorous Italian soldier who’s hot for Hot Lips Houlihan.)

Backstage star power has included Chris Hart, son of legendary playwright Moss Hart—and co-producer of the current Porgy and Bess Broadway revival—to direct his dad’s Light Up the Sky at Adelson. Lending his own acting chops, Bryan Fogel, author of the off-Broadway play and soon-to-be film Jewtopia, costarred in his own condensed variation, Jewtopia Live! at the Suncoast.

Multitasking, Morrow and Sher also dabbled in one-person plays, bringing Jake Ehrenreich to perform A Jew Grows in Brooklyn at the Suncoast, an appetizer to this weekend’s entree: Golda’s Balcony, starring Tovah Feldshuh as the late Israeli prime minister (see interview, above). Among her many roles, Feldshuh might be most recognizable to Law & Order fans as attorney Danielle Melnick.

Imagining a morass of calls and contracts to land the acclaimed one-hander? “We just picked up the phone,” Morrow says. Plus, their Smith Center affiliation extends to a reprise of The Diary of Anne Frank in the center’s Troesch Studio Theater in May.

Although the company is a union outfit as opposed to local volunteer groups (Nevada Conservatory Theatre does use some Equity actors to perform alongside students), no other local company packs this kind of professional punch.

“Most of the audience doesn’t understand the full cost,” says Morrow, a veteran actress who splits her time between Las Vegas and Los Angeles (where the shows rehearse before coming here) and studied at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and with the famed Stella Adler. “Light Up the Sky was about $80,000, what with housing people, and the costumes could have been [used] at [L.A.’s] Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Hugely expensive.” Beyond their swift ascent as a cultural force that, shall we say, should be reckoned with, Jewish Repertory Theatre of Nevada’s most encouraging development is their fledgling partnership with The Smith Center, where the lack of a midsize theater dampens prospects for straight drama as a steady performance diet. Sending Golda’s Balcony into the 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall—after Balcony played to a mere 597 seats nightly in Broadway’s smallest space, the Helen Hayes Theater—is a gutsy gambit, both for how it sells at the box office and how it plays in the hall.

Rising from nowhere less than three years ago, the Jewish Repertory Theatre of Nevada grew into local theater’s first ambassador to The Smith Center, which needs that performing art to truly be about performing arts.

As Sher rightly points out: “We do up the ante.”

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