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Rutland Talent On Display In 'Les Miserables'

Paramount Theatre

Well-known Rutland area music director Rip Jackson says he’s pulling out all the stops for his upcoming production of Les Miserables, which opens Thursday night.

At a recent rehearsal at Rutland’s Grace Congregational Church, the eyes of 55 singers and 23 musicians were laser focused on Jackson, who’s directed scores of productions over the years, from early renaissance choral music and Leonard Bernstein’s Mass to Jesus Christ Superstar and Miss Saigon.

But Jackson says he’s always wanted to do Les Miserables. “It’s the best musical ever written,” he says. “Hands down, my opinion.”

Many people think the production is set in the late 1700s against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  But the Victor Hugo novel, which the musical is based on, actually begins several decades later, climaxing during another period of unrest in France: the June Rebellion of 1832.

“It’s basically the story of a man who is wrongly imprisoned in early 19th-century France and it’s about his slow move toward redemption,” says Jackson. “It’s just an absolutely fabulous story about that journey.”

"It's going to be a very, very ambitious work and I'm not exaggerating to say that I think this is the biggest, most powerful thing I've ever done." - Director Rip Jackson

While Jackson loves the story, he says it’s the musical’s spiritual message that he finds most powerful.The core message of the musical is that if you are caring towards people we can all go in the right direction and journey towards the light.” And Jackson says that’s what happens to Jean Valjean in the musical.

The story of Les Miserables is told through the eyes of Jean Valjean. The audience meets him just as he’s being released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing bread.

Over the years, Valjean struggles to create a new life and break free of his imprisoned past. Eventually he builds a successful factory and hires Fantine, a single mother who’s struggling to support her child.  

Brian Narkewicz plays Jean Valjean in the Rutland production. He says, “Fantine has come off a really very special and protected life, and she’s a fallen woman and comes in and works and really is mistreated by all the other workers. Ultimately she’s discharged,” says Narkewicz, and she passes away.

“Spoiler alert,” he warns. "There’s a lot of death here, so bring your tissues. It’s very moving.”

Before Fantine dies, however, she begs Valjean to care for her daughter Cosette. He agrees and raising her becomes like a sacred mission.

Other smaller subplots are woven through the musical as well, including rioting and political unrest. Rip Jackson says he’s gathered an amazing cast of completely local talent to tell the story. “We’re putting a lot of energy into the costumes, the sets, props, the light design the sound design.”  He says, “it’s going to be a very, very ambitious work and I’m not exaggerating to say that I think this is the biggest most powerful thing I’ve ever done.”

Brian Narkewicz says as a performer he’s wanted to play Jean Valjean for years. Finally getting a chance to do it, he says he was surprised how much one of the scenes touched him personally.

Brian Narkewicz admits some might consider the musical overdone. "But I'd tell them to give it a chance. What you haven't seen is your community come together and do it."

He says near the end of the musical there’s a scene where his character is near death and communicating both with his grown adopted daughter Cosette and her long dead mother Fantine. “And he truly does flip back and forth between talking to the spirit world and then talking to the human world and if you’ve ever experienced anything like that. It’s amazing.

Narkewicz says a similar experience happened to him two years ago when his father died after a long battle with cancer. “I was there and he was very ill and I was in his room one night alone and he was talking with my sister, who had passed before him.” Narkewicz says.

“My father was talking to Susan saying, 'I’m coming ... I’m ready.' Then he talked to me and I said, 'It’s okay Dad, you can go,' and that back and forth experience is real and it’s very eerie.” Narkewicz says he brings that experience on stage with him in Les Miserables and it’s powerful.

Victor Hugo’s novel was published in 1862.  The musical version of Les Miserables premiered in 1980 and has been an international hit ever since.  Two years ago, Hollywood produced a hit film version starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. 

Brian Narkewicz admits some might consider the musical overdone. “But I’d tell them to give it a chance. What you haven’t seen is your community come together and do it. Community theater is really interesting,” he says, “because in a small town like Rutland you might run into your doctor in the grocery store of the guy who fixes your car — you might run into him at the library. It’s very similar with community theater. You’ll see all those people up on stage telling a very powerful and emotional story."

One he says you can’t help but be moved by.

Rip Jackson’s production of Les Miserables opens Thursday and runs through Saturday at Rutland’s Paramount Theatre.

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