CHAMPAIGN — At age 18, when he returned to the States after having lived in India, Stephen Fiol was stunned by the popularity of the musical "Sound of Music."
"People went to see it 15, 16, 30 times," he said. "'Les Miserables' has the same cachet. For many, it's a beloved opera. For many, it's the way they were introduced to the Broadway stage."
So people who see the Champaign Urbana Theatre Company production, opening tonight (Thursday, Aug. 1) at the Parkland Theatre, will bring high expectations, said Fiol, who directs.
Caitlin Caruso-Dobbs, who plays the older Cosette, said the same.
"If they only know the movie — bring it on," she said before rehearsal on Monday evening. "They're going to love it. The phenomenon has been restored."
Caruso-Dobbs, a New York University sophomore majoring in vocal performance/musical theater, said the show is a cut above most community theater offerings because of the director and the lead cast members.
Marah Sotelo, who is playing Eponine, agreed. The Next Generation School music teacher said it's easy to do "Les Miz" "badly," but she has faith that won't happen with CUTC's, again because of the talent.
Fiol has directed several productions for the University of Illinois Opera Program; he retired in 2010 from Millikin University, where he held a variety of positions, among them voice professor, director of opera, director of the School of Music and dean of the College of Fine Arts.
For the lead male roles in "Les Miserables," he cast UI graduate students in vocal performance: Timothy Renner as Javert and Kyle Pollio as Jean Valjean.
Pollio calls Valjean a dream role, one he's wanted since he saw the 10th anniversary touring production starring Colm Wilkinson as Valjean. Wilkinson originated the role in London and on Broadway in the mid-'80s.
"I basically always idolized him because of his character and stamina," Pollio said. "This is a hard show to sing. He had iron vocal folds, and he's pretty much somebody I aspired to emulate because he had such an amazing ability to perform."
A tenor, Pollio, 30, first studied with Sylvia Stone, a faculty member at the UI, and he now studies with Jerold Siena, also a tenor, and is coached by Nathan Gunn, a baritone.
As for essaying Jean Valjean, Pollio said Fiol advised him and other lead cast members to learn their characters by reading Victor Hugo's novel, "Les Miserables," on which the musical (and 2012 movie) is based.
Renner, 26, a baritone who also studies with Siena and Gunn, said the role of Javert, the police officer who persistently pursues Valjean through his life, was written for a high baritone.
Renner falls in that range.
But it's a difficult role for another reason: Javert is technically the bad guy in the story, set in 19th-century France.
"But he sees himself doing the right thing," Renner said. "He just can't come to terms with realizing that Valjean has changed."
So while singing his arias, Renner will try to present a softer side of Javert.
This is the first time the CUTC is presenting an adult version of "Les Miz." The company produced two student versions, but the student script is different.
Fiol called "Les Miserables" a difficult show on many levels. One is the huge cast; the CUTC's numbers 52, down from 55.
The music is demanding, too; "Les Miz" is sung-through, with maybe two lines spoken on pitch rather than sung.
The show also presents technical challenges because of the many scene changes.
And then, as a director, Fiol faces all the expectations the audiences will take to the eight performances this and next weekend.
"This show has its own culture," he said. "I have not done community theater this way in a long time. I did direct last year at the Station Theatre, but that was a small show."
Fiol, though, has faith in his cast, particularly Pollio and Renner, who Fiol said has an industrial-strength voice. He has worked with both before at the UI.
And Fiol praised conductor Aaron Kaplan, who recently finished his UI master's degree in conducting. Kaplan hand-picked a 21-member orchestra for "Les Miz"; the young conductor considers the ensemble his A team.
Here's a plot summary for those of you unfamiliar with the musical, or opera, of "Les Miserables":
"Set in early 19th century France, it tells the story of Jean Valjean, a burly French peasant of abnormal strength and potentially violent nature, and his quest for redemption after serving 19 years in jail for having stolen a loaf of bread for his starving sister's child.
"Valjean decides to break his parole and start his life anew after a kindly bishop inspires him to, but he is relentlessly tracked down by a police inspector named Javert.
"Along the way, Valjean and a slew of characters are swept into a revolutionary period in France, where a group of young idealists make their last stand at a street barricade."
Fiol estimates the three-act "Les Miz" runs for 3 hours, including two intermissions.
If you go
What:Champaign Urbana Theatre Company and J. Barry Howell present "Les Miserables," a sung-through opera based on the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo, with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, and English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer. Directed by Stephen Fiol.
When: 7:30 p.m. today, Friday, Saturday and Aug. 8, 9 and 10 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday and Aug. 10.
Where: Parkland Theatre, 2400 W. Bradley Ave., C.
Tickets: $16 for adults, $12 for senior citizens and students and $8, children.
Reservations: http://www.cutc.org, 344-3884.