WRITTEN BY NEAR ZOREN
For 21st Century Media
John D. Smitherman dreamed of being a quarterback or a policeman, his talent as a singer, however, was discovered at an early age.
Being a shy boy, Smitherman did not perform in community theater or even in high school musicals. He sang unseen from behind a wall in his parents’ home in Neptune Beach, Fla. His parents, realizing he had a way with a song would ask John to sing some popular hit, like Andy Williams’s “Moon River or Tony Orlando’s “Knock Three Times” when company visited, and he’d go behind the living room wall and belt it out.
“That’s probably how I developed my projection,” says Smitherman while speaking in the lobby of the Media Theatre, where on Wednesday he begins eight weeks of performances as Jean Valjean in the Media’s production of “Les Miserables,” directed by artistic director Jesse Cline.
Smitherman has obviously defeated his shyness.
Playing Valjean in “Les Miserables” completes a contemporary leading man’s hat trick. Previously, Smitherman starred in the dual role in Frank Wildhorn’s “Jekyll & Hyde” and as the Phantom in “The Phantom of the Opera.” He says Valjean is the most challenging and rewarding of the three roles.
“People are surprised when I tell them this is the first time I’ve played Jean Valjean. I guess if they know I’ve played Jekyll and the Phantom, they think I must have done Valjean. After all, a leading man today is expected to have performed the ‘big three.’
“Now that I’m working on ‘Les Miserables,’ I realize Valjean is the best of the characters. He is rarely off stage, and he is such a powerhouse. He is a truly wonderful man who has to hide from the French inspector, Javert, because of a crime he committed when we was young. Javert is of the mind that no criminal can be reformed and that Valjean broke his parole.
“In actuality, Valjean was convicted of stealing bread to feed his starving brothers and sisters, but he kept escaping from prison and received more time when he was caught.
“The irony is the man I play is always trying to do something to help somebody. He finds about Fantine’s plight too late, but he is willing to subdue Javert to rescue Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, from the sad conditions in which she is living. Following the battle on the barricades, Valjean, already middle-aged, carries the wounded Marius through the sewers of Paris to save him from death and have him nursed back to health.
“From my point of view, his character is not remotely criminal. Valjean is a good man who is always ready to pitch in and give assistance. Javert only recognizes him because he lifts a cart to free a man trapped under it, and the inspector is reminded of the only man he’s seen who has that kind of strength.
“Valjean also has some wonderful songs. As he brings Marius to safety, he prays for his survival by singing ‘Bring Him Home.’ This is a great man with a lot of facets. It is wonderful to have the chance to play him and to work with this company while doing it.”
The Media cast includes Lauren Cupples as Cosette, Elisa Matthews as Fantine, Kelly Briggs as Thenardier, Susan Wefel as Madame Thenardier, James Zanelli as Javert, Sean Thompson as Enjolras, and Zach Monroe as Marius Pontmercy. Several of these actors have made major marks at Media in past shows, Cupples as Wednesday in the recent production of “The Addams Family.” Wefel has given numerous performances of note at both the Media and the Hedgerow Theatre, where she is a Board member in addition to being a resident actress, prop mistress, and coordinator of children’s theater.
Smitherman is also one who plies a variety of theatrical trades.
He is long past his days of shyness, although he says even today, he prefers to sing in theaters seating 1,000, with lights so bright you can’t see the audience than in intimate spaces where the audience can make eye contact.
“I went to college not sure what I wanted to do. My aim was to study criminal justice and join a police department. My father told me my mother could never live with the worry she’d have if I was doing police work. Since I could draw, including in freehand, I changed my major to graphic arts and began taking courses in music as a minor.
“Don’t ask me what rock I was under or how I didn’t know this, but until I was a student at Jacksonville University, just up the road from Neptune Beach, I had no idea you could study music in college, let alone choose music as a major.
“It shows how naïve I was. I turned to law enforcement because I realized I would probably never make it to the pros as a football quarterback. In college, I still had the ambitions most boys have when they’re age eight.
“Music opened up new worlds.
“I already knew I had a voice. My parents weren’t making a joke of my shyness when they asked me to sing. I really could present a song well and had a good voice. I’d outgrown my inability to perform before an audience before I entered college. I didn’t perform in high school theater, but I would sing at retirement homes and would get compliments. One woman said I sounded like Mario Lanza and gave me a present of a Lanza album, ‘Songs of Love and Devotion.’ I enjoyed singing with it. The selections included arias from Mascagni’s “Cavelleria Rusticana.” They stimulated by interest in opera and in acting.
“Music and theater became more and more a part of my life. I no longer wanted to be a policeman, and I thank heavens now that I did not pursue a degree in graphic arts. Everything changed in that field soon after I was graduated. I would have been obsolete, a dinosaur, designing freehand when everyone else was using a computer.
“When I was graduated from Jacksonville, I looked for and got work in the theater.”
Smitherman remained in the Southeast and appeared in shows from the Carolinas into his native Florida. His parents were shocked when they realized John earned enough from his singing and acting to buy his own home in Venice Beach.
It was there he became entrepreneurial and branched out into producing and directing shows.
“No matter what I decided while I was in school, my parents supported my choices. I was glad I could surprise them by showing I made enough of a living to establish roots and have a domestic life when I wasn’t in some Southern city working.
“I began doing more than performing when I came to Venice Beach. The town had a theater that presented shows during the winter months but was dormant for the summer. I asked if I could produce shows during the months the theater was inactive. That started me as a producer, director, set designer, publicist, box office clerk, you name it. Since that time, I have been comfortable doing almost any job concerned with theater. It has gotten to the point at which I’d like to say one job or another, like acting or directing, was the most enjoyable to me, but I like all of the aspects of theater and feel lucky I have the chance to practice them all.”
In addition to acting at the Media, Smitherman is the artistic director of the Broadway Theatre in Pitman, N.J. He began rehearsals for “Les Miserables” right after directing “The Pirates of Penzance” in Pitman.
“My wife and I moved to this area of the country in 2006,” Smitherman said.
“We had been successful in Florida, but my wife, Jessica Edwards, is a talented singer and actress, and she wanted to be closer to New York. We had worked in Philadelphia, and each of us knew the Dutch Apple Theatre in Lancaster and thought the Delaware Valley would be a good place to settle, especially because Jessica and I determined it was time for us to begin a family.
“That’s why we didn’t go to New York, so any children we had could be raised in a more typical community. As it turned out, I went on the road in shows almost as soon as we moved to this area. I was on tour with ‘Boeing Boeing’ and ‘Hairspray.’ Jessica looked for work locally.
“When our son was born, I decided I should also stay closer to home. I began devising shows I could take to various venues, One was a program of Broadway tunes under the umbrella title, ‘All I Ask of You.’ Another was my one-man show, ‘Music of the Night.’
“They proved to be popular. We did ‘All I Ask of You’ at Hedgerow. I also did it in Pitman. Around that time, the Broadway’s Board was looking to make a change in artistic director. I happened to be at the right place at the right time. I used my combined skills, and the Broadway Theatre is growing. In addition to musicals, we do concerts. Shirley Jones and Bobby Rydell performed there last year.
“In the midst of all I’m doing, I want to act, and I did not want to miss the chance to do ‘Les Miserables’ here once Jesse (Cline) chose me to do it. Jean Valjean is such an encompassing role. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to play it and not only to complete my personal ‘big three.’”
IF YOU GO: “Les Miserables” runs from Wednesday through Sunday, Jan. 11 at the Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, in Media.
Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Because of the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s holidays, the schedule can vary.
Also, there are occasional Tuesday evening shows at 7 p.m. and morning shows at 10 a.m. Please check the date and time of a show to make sure a performance is set.
Tickets are $42 and can be obtained by calling (610) 891-0100 or by visiting www.mediatheatre.org.