Jack Kolinski was just another karaoke singer in The Villages until a few months ago. Now, incredibly, this 64-year-old retired lawyer with no stage experience finds himself in the starring role in “Les Miserables.”
His transformation from lounge lizard to Jean Valjean is the stuff of Villages’ dreams.
“I’m a karaoke guy; being the lead in ‘Les Miz’ wasn’t even on my bucket list,” Kolinski said. “The last time I was on stage was in second grade. I played a dictionary.”
“Les Miz” runs from March 11-15 in the Savannah Center, nightly at 7 p.m. Part of the proceeds will go The Visual Arts Association and The Philharmonic Chorale.
The cast features such seasoned performers as Carolyn Hoffman (as Cosette), Alex Scopino (Javert), and Sue Schuler, who also directs, as Fantine. Maestro Pasquale Valerio is music conductor and guest musical consultant. It is produced by Joan Knapton of KC Productions.
But it’s Kolinski, in his breakout role of Jean Valjean, who dominates the production. He’s a tall, angular man with gray-flecked hair and a beard under his chin. Kolinski is still a bit raw on stage, but when he sings and acts, a stunning transformation takes place. Even his face contorts in time to the music in the demanding, at times, operatic role.
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“I was skeptical at first that he could handle all this,” Schuler said. “This is a difficult role for experienced performers. But Jack had the best voice at the audition.
“He’s still a work in progress and he’s learning at every rehearsal. When you hear him sing and see him on stage, it’s just terrific.”
Joe Kolinski, Jack’s brother, is an actor living in New York City who played in the original cast of “Les Miserables” on Broadway for nine years. He was also in “Titanic” on Broadway, among other performances.
“What Jack is doing is not only implausible, it’s amazing,” Joe said. “’Les Miz’ has deep heart and it never ceases to inspire people. I think Jack in the role of Jean Valjean gives a Broadway-caliber performance and I’m not just saying that because he’s my brother.”
Scopino, who plays Javert, has many scenes with Kolinski and still finds it hard to believe a stage novice could handle such a role.
“I’ve been performing for 15 years and have a master’s degree in music,” he said. “Jack comes along with no experience and what he does on stage is phenomenal. He looks like Jean Valjean, he talks like Jean Valjean, and he becomes Jean Valjean.”
Carolyn Hoffman agrees. As Cosette she has a complicated relationship with Valjean.
“Jack and I have worked together to bring intimacy and softness to our roles,” she said. “Cosette has a lot of hidden strength and moxie. Jack and I work together to try and show the relationship.”
“Les Miz” is a complicated story, based on a Victor Hugo novel, about revolution. The themes include justice, family, sacrifice and love.
Scopino believes it is relevant to the present. The revolutionary flames currently in the Middle East are burning with violence, hatred and a quest for power. It’s a long way from the peaceful Arab Spring of just a few years ago.
“This show is more important than ever,” Scopino said. “Revolution, even peaceful revolution, can bring oppression and violence. But, as in ‘Les Miz,’ there will always be people fighting against tyranny. I think the line that sums up ‘Les Miz’ is: ‘To love another person is to see the face of God.’”
“Les Miz” is a big play, with a cast of over 40 actors and lasts about 2 ½ hours. It’s a hybrid Broadway musical/opera that can sometimes overpower an audience. Director Schuler wants, “to make it more personal. We want to make it more in your face for the audience. We want people to feel it close up.”
Jean Valjean is the central character who starts the production in a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread. Eventually, after 19 years, he starts a new life, takes care of a dying woman’s daughter and gets caught up in the revolution.
“To me this is an opera and the music is what matters,” Kolinski said. “The music and lyrics capture the emotions. I hope that the audience listens to Jean Valjean to feel the pain, anger, love and joy that is such much a part of ‘Les Miz.’”
Jack Kolinski was always a big fan of the musical and saw his brother perform in it. “Joe has become a mentor to me,” said Kolinski, who grew up in Detroit and lives with his wife, Jane, in the Village of Mallory Square. “The best advice Joe gave me was to be myself and not try an imitate anybody else. He wants me to bring my own voice to the role.” He added his brother will be in The Villages opening night to watch his performance.
One of the big lessons Jack Kolinski learned how to physically move on stage. He talked about the dramatic impact of “stillness” on stage. “And I don’t want to over-sing,” he added.
“There’s so much to learn but it’s an honor to be the lead in ‘Les Miz,’” said Kolinski, who recently sang at a Villages Philharmonic performance. “They say all lawyers are frustrated actors and your audience is a jury, but it’s nothing like being on stage.”
Despite his singing talent, Kolinski has no regrets over choosing law over the stage. “I’ve had a great life, I’ve got 4 children and 9 grandchildren, and they matter more than anything else.
“If ‘Les Miz’ is my 15 minutes of fame, I’m glad it happened and I’m going savor every minute of it.”