CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It started as a casual, offhand comment from a lighting technician speaking to the director during an opera program rehearsal at the University of Illinois: “We should do a production just for ourselves sometime,” the technician said. “You know, just for fun.”
That was Susan Summers, chatting with Stephen Fiol and a few other artistic friends in 2011, as Fiol directed the School of Music’s production of “Man of La Mancha” – the musical most famous for the 1960’s pop hit “The Impossible Dream.”
Summers’ suggestion progressed from dream stage to reality, and the result is “The Game of Love,” opening June 7 (Thursday) at the Station Theatre in Urbana. The production team includes many of Fiol’s friends who were involved in “La Mancha.” More than half the cast members are U. of I. faculty or staff members or graduate students. Ryan Groff, the lead singer and songwriter for the nationally known band Elsinore, will make a cameo appearance.
Soon after “La Mancha” closed, Fiol hosted a get-together at his home with a few friends, a stack of scripts and a bottle of wine. They whittled the scripts down to “The Game of Love” – a musical based on “The Anatol Plays,” by Arthur Schnitzler, who was a friend and colleague of Sigmund Freud. The story chronicles what Fiol calls the “misguided romantic affairs” of Anatol in pre-World War I Vienna. “It’s charming, it’s witty, and it’s really wonderful music,” Fiol said.
The score comprises the greatest hits of Jacques Offenbach (excerpts from his operas “The Tales of Hoffman” and “La Perichole”), with book and lyrics by Tom Jones, best known as the writer of “The Fantasticks” and “110 in the Shade.” Arrangements and additional music were written by Nancy Ford.
Fiol is accustomed to grander stages – having directed the past 11 U. of I. opera program productions at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts – but he relishes the idea of working in a cozier setting.
“It’s this little matchbox of a place, but they have done a remarkable series of productions that are cutting-edge,” Fiol said. “One of the great things about the Station Theatre is that it’s so small. It’s such an intimate space, you can literally talk like this [in a normal voice] and everybody can hear it.”
Known as a venue for top-notch community theater, the Station Theatre provides just enough funding for props and scenery, but not enough to pay cast and crew. Still, Fiol and his friends decided to use seasoned thespians. “This was not going to be an educational experience for people, it was going to be a professional experience,” he said.
Krannert employees Julie Rundell, Elina Kotlyar and Sallie Zazal handle sets and properties, stage managing and costume duties, respectively. Fiol’s wife Rebecca Nettl-Fiol, a member of the dance faculty at U. of I., is choreographer, and Mathew Green, who works at the school’s counseling center, is producing the show.
The cast includes Ingrid Kammin, who has recorded as soprano soloist with Sinfonia da Camera; Tania Coambs, a doctoral candidate in music at the U. of I.; John Dayger, a visiting lecturer on the U. of I. dance faculty; and Kit Cleto, a U. of I. graduate student who will spend the remainder of his summer performing with the Bethesda Summer Music Festival in Maryland and Opera Breve in Wichita Falls, Texas. Cellist Barbara Hedlund, whose husband, Ronald, retired after 27 years as a voice professor at Illinois, leads the string trio that is integral to the show.
She proposed casting a pop singer for the cameo role of Baron Diebel. As a result of a friend’s recommendation, Fiol approached Elsinore’s Groff. Groff, whose infectious songwriting has put Elsinore in the playlist of “So You Think You Can Dance” on the FOX network and on the soundtrack of a national Kohl’s television ad, was flattered to be invited to join the cast.
“I was very excited to be asked by a credible director with such an extensive history to be part of a show,” Groff said.
Fiol was equally impressed with Groff, who earned a degree in vocal performance and music composition at Eastern Illinois University and teaches up to 40 private music lessons per week.
“This guy can sing. I mean, he can really sing,” Fiol said. “He has an amazing voice, about a four-octave range.”
“My vocal coach at Eastern was a counter-tenor, so he helped me develop my upper register,” Groff said. “I just let Steve and the other cast members tell me what to do and try to act on it immediately, since I’m the new guy.”
His band will headline a festival the same night “The Game of Love” closes, mirroring the way the entire cast and crew has juggled professional commitments to participate in this production.
“These people all have lives,” Fiol said. “They’re coming to rehearsals after a day’s work. I try to be considerate of their energies. This is really a labor of love, in the best sense.”
“The Game of Love” will be performed at 8 p.m. June 7-10 (Thursday-Sunday) and June 13-16 (Wednesday-Saturday). Tickets are $10 on weeknights, $15 on Friday and Saturday nights. To reserve tickets, call 217-384-4000.