Big talent behind Drury Lane’s ‘Les Miserables’

Almost 30 years after it premiered, the thrall of “Les Miserables” remains undiminished.

“Redemption is at the core of the musical, and that’s something everyone can connect to,” says Quentin Earl Darrington, the Broadway vet who stars as Inspector Javert in the Drury Lane staging of the unstoppable musical.

With a story that encompasses decades as it winds through love, death and revolution in 19th century France, “Les Mis,” based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, centers on an epic collision between mercy and a rigid judicial system and a powerful clash of ideals between the policeman Inspector Javert and the reformed thief Jean Valjean (played by Ivan Rutherford, who portrayed the role on Broadway for years). The story travels through decades and subplots, as Javert, tragically unable to see that law and justice sometimes have little in common, relentlessly tracks Valjean, branded for life as a criminal after stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child.

“I would love for people to see this show and then maybe think a little bit about the less fortunate,” says director Rachel Rockwell. “It’s not like I want everyone to go out and give all their money away, but I do think there’s an awareness to be gained from the show. You know, there’s two books in the Bible — Old and New, one about wrath, one about grace. I walk away from ‘Les Mis’ thinking about contributing to the world in terms of grace.”

With an impossibly lush score, a swoony romance between the daughter of a doomed prostitute and a dashing young revolutionary and comic relief in the form of two tough hucksters whose schemes stretch from high society to the sewers of Paris, “Les Mis” is a banquet of juicy roles and star-turn solos. To deliver the music, Rockwell is teaming with the best “Les Mis” music director in the business, Roberta Duchak, who served as Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman’s vocal coach for the Oscar winning, 2012 film adaptation of the musical.

For Darrington (who Drury Lane audiences will remember for his riveting turn as Coalhouse Walker in the Jeff Award-winning production of “Ragtime” in 2010), that music is a challenge as well as a thrill. Based in Florida, the 35-year-old actor, was in the midst of a performance hiatus when the call came for “Les Mis.” After stints starring on Broadway (“Ragtime”) and on tour (“Memphis”), Darrington was deep in graduate work, pursuing a degree in musical theater. He’s missing two months worth of classes to do “Les Mis” in Oak Brook.

“So yeah, when I’m not on, I’m in the corner doing homework,” he says. “Believe it or not, I didn’t know the full story or the full score of ‘Les Mis’ before we started rehearsals. So every time we go to work, I’m learning. And every day, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, these are some of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.’”

Rockwell has no intention of going revisionist with iconic numbers such as “One Day More,” “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own.”

“Numbers like ‘One Day More,’ you don’t want to change things around. How are you not going to have everyone marching in place with the flag flying at the end of that song? If you change that, people will riot,” says Rockwell. “But what I’m really, really digging into here is the hopelessness and the violence that so many of these characters experience on their journeys. Especially with Fantine — the song she has with the prostitutes, ‘Lovely Ladies,’ is almost comic in its staging. Not here. We’re not pulling any punches — it’s sad, violent and degrading.”

Yet the indomitable message of “Les Miserables” remains one of hope, stress Rockwell and Darrington.

“One of the things I take from this show is a new appreciation of the people in my life, I think that’s kind of the message — to love people. And live each day preciously, because tomorrow is never promised,” says Darrington.

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