Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Nine"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


book by Arthur Kopit
music and lyrics by Maury Yeston
based on Federico Fellin’s film “8½”

directed and choregraphed by Barry Ivan
musical direction by Dale Rieling

Little Guido … John-Michael Breen
Guido Contini … Robert Newman
Luisa … Josie de Guzman
Carla … Milena Govich
Francesca … Melissa A. Rouse
Olga von Sturm … Becky Barta
Juliette … Joanne Javien
Guido’s Mother … Melissa Hart
Maria … Alison Spratt
Our Lady of the Spa … Jacqueline Hendy
Stephanie Necrophorus …Charlotte Cohn
Saraghina … Inga Ballard
Claudia … Amanda Serkasevich
Diana … Carol Schuberg
Renata … Jennifer Taylor
Annabella … Amy Barker
Sofia … Jaclyn Minerva
Lina Darling … Cindy Marchionda
Liliane La Fleur … Beth McVey


Conductor … Dale Rieling
Flute; Clarinet; Alto Sax … Rod Ferland
Trumpet … Jay Daly
Violin; Viola … Zoia Bologovsky
Viola … Nathaniel Farney
Cello … Timothy Roberts
Bass … Ed Krauss
Keyboard I … Brian Cimmet
Keyboard II … Adam Souza
Percussion … Michael Ambroszewski

NINE, now playing at the North Shore Music Theatre, is a musicalization of Federico Fellini’s 8½, his 1963 film à clef about Guido Contini, a celebrated film director suffering from a mid-life crisis and an artistic mental block. Librettist Arthur Kopit extracts one of the film’s episodes --- the celebrated dream sequence where the women throughout Guido’s life are brought together to coddle and combat him --- and sets it at the spa (here, Venice) where Guido goes to cool his kindled nerves (“8½” is supposedly the number of films Mr. Fellini had made up to 1963; NINE takes its title from a key song in the show). Apart from Guido as a nine-year-old boy, the mature Guido is the sole male on a stage filled with women; as Mr. Kopit has removed the other men who more or less represent Guido’s creative life, NINE becomes a one-note study of a frustrated Casanova rather than an artist ever-shifting between fantasy and reality. Maury Yeston’s complex score may not match Nino Rota’s raffish soundtrack, so inseparable from Mr. Fellini’s vision, but it works well within the confines of the show; if Guido now registers as a blank Everyman (both boy and man are obsessed with Woman but fail to look beneath her surface), the Messrs. Kopit and Yeston compensate with a gallery of turns from his women; just as Guido gazes upon his wife, his mother, his mistress, etc., the audience becomes Guido-like, themselves, gazing upon the actresses portraying them --- thus, Act One is marvelous with its “who’s next?” air; Act Two, which must gather these varied blooms into a sensible bouquet, threatens to devour itself, leaving behind a still-gazing hero who has not grown or budged an inch.

North Shore’s production follows close on the heels of the one at Turtle Lane. Having seen both --- one, heartfelt bread-and-butter; the other, a slickly professional entertainment --- I now want to see a third production that can combine the best of both worlds for twice Guido’s plummet has been sounded with few reverberations (NINE may turn out to be a locked book minus its key, after all). If you missed Turtle Lane’s offering --- which is a pity as it proved how good Boston’s community theatre has become --- there is plenty to enjoy at North Shore with its handsome leading man and his golden harem. One of the Turtle Lane fascinations was a female director looking at a man looking at women, resulting in few divas and goddesses gamboling about the stage. Here, director/choreographer Barry Ivan’s ensemble is lighter, dazzling, more icons than flesh, and thus with little blood in their veins. “The Germans at the Spa” has been dropped and the Teutonic quartet is reduced to one fraulein, and “Be Italian” has been shorn of tambourines for both its solo and its show-stopping reprise. Finally, as designer Alan Michael Smith allows for few costume changes (even in the Grand Canal sequence), I see no reason why the women cannot be layered about the rings of the stage, within Guido’s reach --- following NINE’s traditional staging --- rather than jogging up and down the aisles or stairway, in heels and in the dark (goddesses don’t jog).

Robert Newman, the Guido, is easily the handsomest leading man to grace the Boston area in some time and his rousing, virile voice matches his looks every step of the way (both qualities are most welcome, as Guido, like Siegfried, never leaves the stage for long). On the debit side, Mr. Newman does not look, sound nor act Italian in the passionate, earthy, or larger-than-life departments --- these women should be the leaves to his whirlwind --- instead, Mr. Newman is polite, courtly, reserved as if he had accidentally wandered into a vast, crowded ladies’ room and cannot find his way out but his tongue-in-cheek humor would lend itself well to, say, a Frank Butler for Mr. Berlin and his agreeable friendliness is perfect for Mr. Sondheim’s Bobby Baby. The ensemble, composed of seventeen women, is breathtaking to hear, having been orchestrated to an inch of their lives so that Mr. Yeston’s sounds that range from heaven to circus to Day of Judgment float, romp or command with plenty of air and distance about their voices; think well-balanced stereo (their first entrance brings a shiver of delight as they silently file down the staircase in silhouette; these beautiful women, all shapes, sizes and ages, with all their mysteries and charms, shall be ours for the next few hours!). Josie de Guzman is in fine voice as Luisa the ignored wife but she has been hard pressed to be, well, hard so that Guido’s wanderings become understandable (which also happened at Turtle Lane; actresses either don’t want or aren’t allowed to be vulnerable, anymore) but she has a haunting little moment depending on where you sit in the house: watching Guido from a distance (up one of the aisles) as he films his Casanova movie, Ms. De Guzman’s face radiates an outsider’s loss: Guido, whom Luisa still loves, is more unfaithful to her with his camera than with his penis. Milena Govich is so seductively edible as the mistress Carla, hinging and unhinging her legs, that she needn’t have to take a bra-and-panties shower to climax “A Call from the Vatican”; more can sometimes be less, y’know? Turtle Lane’s actresses playing Guido’s producer Liliane La Fleur and the epic Saraghina stole that production; North Shore’s Beth McVey and Inga Ballard may not be fellow thieves but do put things on hold while they are in the spotlight with Ms. McVey --- round, warm and maternal --- rivaling Ms. Govich in eroticism (many a young man, seeking initiation, may choose the former over the latter) and Ms. Ballard’s rich, regal air almost makes one forget that this particular earth mother is not barefoot and clearly knows what soap and water and combs are all about. John-Michael Breen, a local lad, sings young Guido with lovely bell-like tones.
A nod of acknowledgement must go to Becky Barta as the sole remaining fraulein; Ms. Barta recently completed her second Patsy Cline at the Stoneham Theatre (her performance tied for an Addison, two years ago) --- Ms. Barta may have little to do, here, but to cast this superb singer/actress as a walk-on only strengthens the frame around Mr. Newman all the more.


"Nine" (24 August-12 September)
62 Dunham Road, BEVERLY, MA
1 (978) 232-7200

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide