note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
Special to Theater Mirror
The musical “Nine” has been in performance at the Turtle Lane Playhouse since April, and the word is that it has been undergoing a process of refinement during that time. The results are wonderfully satisfying.
An elaborate spectacular that features complex music, more than 20 women, three boys and one omnipresent man, “Nine” is a difficult show to mount. Just finding that many women who sing well and can also act is a challenge. But director Elaina Vrattos and music director Wayne Ward (also conductor of the live orchestra) have made a lovely whole out of a range of abilities.
“Nine” is roughly based on the life and art of Italian film director Federico Fellini, as was Fellini’s classic 1963 movie “8-1/2.” The number nine in the musical refers to the age of Guido Contini (the talented James Fitzpatrick III) at a critical stage in his development. Now nearly 40, Guido is still a wanderer in fantasy land, an egomaniac who venerates his mother (played by Karen Fanale) and his wife (Tracy Nygard as Luisa) but can’t resist assuming romantic personae for an endless number of doting women.
Through his filmmaking, Guido beneficently encourages others to believe in their dreams, but his own acting out takes a toll. As the story opens, the filmmaker is distraught over a series of box office flops. His tyrannical producer (Linda Goetz as Liliane LaFleur) demands that he make a musical for a change. He runs away to an elegant Venetian spa with Luisa in order to give himself time to think. His mistress Carla (the sultry Aimee Doherty) follows in (very) hot pursuit, and the popular resort is filled with fans and distractions.
With Guido deep into writer’s block, the long-suffering Luisa sends for his usual leading lady, Claudia (Kate deLima), another of his former lovers.
When inspiration finally strikes and Guido comes up with a script about a Casanova, he hurts all his women deeply by turning his experiences with them into farce. Each at last understands the uselessness of loving a man who is permanently a self-absorbed nine-year-old.
The musical combines hilarity with seriousness and pain with healing -- not as separate elements but as two sides of one coin. The light and dark of Guido’s Catholicism provides a backdrop and a counterpoint. As we sense in Claudia’s breathtakingly haunting song “Unusual Way,” the power of impossible dreams (like the power of religion) lies in their ability to simultaneously delude and transfigure. As if taking holy orders, a wistful Claudia sings of surrender and asks, “How can I ever forget you, now that you’ve touched my soul? In a very unusual way, you made me whole.”
Among many delightful numbers, a few others stood out as well: producer LaFleur’s transformation from tough broad into chorus girl in “Folies Bergères,” in which she descends from the stage to adlib with men in the audience; “The Bells of St. Sebastian,” which recalls Young Guido’s school; “Be Italian,” in which the neighborhood whore from Guido’s childhood (Shiba Nemat-Nasser as Sarraghina) leads the company in a joyous tarantella with tambourines; and “Getting Tall,” in which Young Guido (Jacob Brandt) gently lectures his older self about growing up.
In addition to the impressive leads, there were many fine actors, including a rubber-faced Julia Madeson as the farce version of Carla and the critic Stephanie Necrophorus, played by a superciliously disdainful Shannon Muhs (“a cantaloupe is a genius compared to Contini”). However, the role of Our Lady of the Spa was not clear (a narrating statue?), and a native speaker could probably find fault with the Italian, German and French accents, funny as they were. One might also question the emphatically upbeat ending. More ambiguity about Luisa’s return and Guido’s new insight might have been in order, given the complexity of the characters and the underlying theme of intertwined light and dark.
Arthur Kopit is given credit for the exceptional book, which evolved from Mario Fratti’s translation of a play he wrote in Italian. The memorable, singable music and lyrics were the work of Maury Yeston. Choreographer Karen Fogerty created some charming dance routines. Jeff Gardiner designed the spa’s sweeping staircase and pillars as well as the lighting. Richard Itczak created the all-black (and later, the all-white) costumes that fit the protagonist’s angel-devil, black-and-white worldview. Alex Savitzsky was sound designer and James Tallach stage manager.
“Nine” is running at the Turtle Lane Playhouse in Newton through May 30. For further information, see >www.turtle-lane.com .