Becoming Omri Schein

by Pat Launer May 30, 2017
 

 

schein_l-r-phil-johnson-and-omri-scheinOmri Schein is a man of the world and a man of the theater. He grew up in the small Swiss town of Schaffhausen; his mother is from Switzerland, his father from Poland (family legend says his dad’s mother’s father was a musician in Kaiser-Wilhelm’s orchestra).

According to his very funny bio: “In the land of cheese, chocolates, and cuckoo clocks, a little Jewish baby was born. But alas, he was not raised to ski, blow on the alphorn, or to eat Fleishchaas once a week.”

His father, a physician, worked in many different locales. When Omri was 6 months old, the family moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, where they remained for 11 years, then relocated to Haifa, Israel, where Omri reports he spent time “wearing gas masks, eating falafel, and floating in the Dead Sea.” In 1994, his freshman year of high school, the Scheins immigrated to the U.S., to Brookfield, a suburb of Milwaukee. Two years later, they were living in the New York City borough of Staten Island.

As a result of his peripatetic upbringing, Omri speaks German, as well as Swiss German (not the same), Hebrew, and of course, English.

He majored in English and theater at the State University of New York at Oneonta, and then pursued a master’s degree in musical theater, which took him to San Diego. He graduated in 2006 and has been here ever since. In the theater program at SDSU he met his wife, Elizabeth; their first child, Pearl, was just born.

“I always loved music,” he says. “But I never thought of myself as a musical theater performer. He proved his musical and comical chops in various places, including touring Europe in the musical, “Grease” (he played Eugene, the nerd); Off Broadway in “The People vs. Mona” (he played multiple roles; “that’s usually my thing”); and Boca Raton, Florida, where Jason Alexander directed a stage version of the beloved 1966 comedy album, “When You’re in Love, the Whole World is Jewish.”

Locally, audiences likely remember him in the musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (he was the hilarious William Barfe – “that’s Bar-FAY!”), both at North Coast Repertory Theatre and at Intrepid Theatre.

More recently, it’s his comic acting that has been showcased, in “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at North Coast Rep and “Beau Jest” at Lamb’s Players Theatre. Both times, he was so side-splitting he nearly walked away with the show. In August, he’ll appear in the comedy “The Explorers Club” at Lamb’s. 

Yet, he describes himself as “very shy; quiet and reserved; an introvert. I’m only funny onstage.” That he is. But in person, he’s thoughtful and intellectually curious, an avid reader who relishes good writing.

Now it’s time for him to engage in that part of theater.

Omri had worked onstage with funnyman Phil Johnson (they met doing “Spelling Bee” together at North Coast), and he wanted to collaborate on “something that would showcase our talents. I was thinking: What could be ridiculous for two character actors to do?

“Initially, I thought about a family gathering,” he says, “with all different characters at a bris. Then I came up with the idea of ‘Withering Heights.’”

Emily Brontë’s 1845 novel, “Wuthering Heights,” is, according to Omri, “one of the biggest romantic stories of our time. It’s gothic; it’s depressing. Everyone dies. It’s perfect for a comedy!”

When Phil first heard this concept, he thought, “This is a terrible idea. But after being trapped with the novel on an ocean vacation, I fell in love with it.”

He “saw the gloom and doom, and immediately saw the potential,” as Omri puts it.

“Two swarthy character men playing one of the most romantic couples in literature,” says Phil. “It was irresistible!

“When I worked with Omri in ‘Spelling Bee,’” Phil continues, “I thought he was funny and inventive and fearless in a way that would go right up to the edge of crazy, just before he might fall into some ‘comedy ravine.’ I realized that we had very similar taste and wants – and a brazen love of making an audience laugh. We had great chemistry pretty much right off: he would try to make me laugh and I sat there pretty much in shock. It had begun.”

They started meeting at a coffee shop weekly. “We’d sit there laughing hysterically,” says Omri. “People thought we were nuts.”

“We began to attack it a piece at a time,” says Phil. “It’s a bear of a story. “And the fun we had visualizing our funny, loving take on this wonderful piece of literature told me: This was meant to be!”

Together, they re-conceived the 16 characters. The publicity shots show Omri in full drag (he’d done it only once before onstage, in “When Pigs Fly” at Diversionary Theatre), but the co-writers decided that they’d stick with just “one unit costume. It’s more about our physicality and voices,” says Omri. “I only wear a wig when I’m Catherine.”

Many people think that “Wuthering Heights” was a straightforward, if intense, love story — a kind of “Romeo and Juliet” set on the Moors of Yorkshire. But the novel is actually focused on revenge. It follows Heathcliff, a mysterious person, reportedly an orphan, from childhood to his death in his late thirties. Heathcliff rises in his adopted family and then is reduced to the status of a servant, running away when Catherine, the girl he’s loved since childhood, decides to marry another man, Edgar. Heathcliff returns later, rich and educated, and sets about gaining his revenge on the two families that he believes ruined his life. He marries and abuses the young Isabella, but he and Catherine are forever linked, and seek each other out even after death.

The book has inspired many adaptations, including multiple films, tv dramas, an opera, even a graphic novel.

“I was Catherine from the beginning,” Omri declares. “Phil is a funny Heathcliff. He’s also Nellie, the housekeeper, young Catherine, and her daughter. And a dog.

“I’m playing Isabella and Frances, a young wife and mother; and Joseph, a servant. And Emily Brontë, who comes out at the end to scold us for ruining her book.

“It’s going to be over the top and funny,” Omri asserts. “But we’re pretty respectful of the novel. When we did a reading at Diversionary a year or so ago, it went really well and was well received.”

Now, “Withering Heights” will get a one-month run at Diversionary, playing in repertory with “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” the one-woman, multi-character show written by Jane Wagner for Lily Tomlin, who won a Tony Award for her performance in 1985. The beloved local actor taking on the challenge is Monique Gaffney.

All this is under the banner of The Roustabouts, co-founded by Phil Johnson, Ruff Yeager and playwright Will Cooper. San Diego’s newest theater company is dedicated to producing “fresh visions of classics, well-known contemporary plays, and new works.”

As Phil puts it, “We celebrate the artist and honor the creative impulse by drawing from the rich, diverse talents of actors, directors, designers and playwrights who live in our region. The best plays for you, matched up with the best local artists.”

While he’s devoted to Ms. Brontë’s work at the moment, Omri has his fingers in a number of other pies.

He’s promoting his musical, “Gary Goldfarb, Master Escapist” (for which he wrote book and lyrics, to a score by composer James Olmstead), which was an Official Selection of the prestigious New York Musical Theatre Festival Next Link Project 2013. Omri and Olmstead were hired to write songs for “Mambo Italiano,” a non-musical Canadian film.

And he’s also written a play, “The Grotesque,” for which he’ll do a one-time reading on June 27 at Diversionary Theatre.

“It’s a fictional story about a retreat in the Austrian mountains where Jews checked in to get rid of their Jewishness,” he explains.

The reading will take place during the run of “Withering Heights,” and is also being presented by The Roustabouts, at Diversionary. It will star, among other local luminaries, Omri, Phil Johnson and Ruff Yeager (who was outstanding in the Roustabouts’ debut production in April, “Margin of Error,” a world premiere by Will Cooper). The reading is free, but donations are accepted, to benefit The Roustabouts.

“The characters in ‘The Grotesque’ are eccentric, but it’s a serious play – my first,” says Omri. “It has encouraged me to move forward with my new musical about unappreciated people, which will be a series of vignettes, in an episodic structure.”

The musical stories of unsung heroes will include “people like Rosalyn Franklin, the British Jewish scientist who was credited with identifying DNA, but Watson and Crick got all the fame and glory. Or Israel Zangwell, who first came up with the term ‘melting pot,’ and wrote a play by that name, the first locked-room mystery. Why does no one talk about these people?”

Omri plans to be a stay-at-home dad, which may give him time to work on his wide-ranging projects.

But for now, he has his eye on “Withering Heights,” which will be directed by North Coast Rep artistic director David Ellenstein (who appeared with Omri in “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” last year).

“David will keep us in check,” Omri is certain. “We’ve already taken out about 98 percent of the anachronisms in the script. We took out all the fart jokes. Okay, maybe we left one in,” he quips.

The ultimate goal for this show is an Off Broadway production, followed by an extended life around the country.

“Every town has two comic actors and a theater that would relish a fun, low-budget show,” Omri says.

“With our political climate the way it is, it’s a perfect escape, a carefree 90 minutes. I wonder these days, what theater will be like in the next year or two: political or escapist? You have to have both.

“This is a loose interpretation of the novel,” he continues. “We hope people don’t take it too seriously and just come for a few laughs and a good time.” 

The Roustabouts production of “Withering Heights” runs at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights, from June 10-July 9. Tickets and information: (619) 220-0097 or
theroustabouts.org.

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