Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Nine"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


"NINE"

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

directed by Elaina Vrattos
musical direction by Wayne Ward
choreography by Karen Fogerty

Guido Contini … James Fitzpatrick
Guido (at an early age) … Jacob Brandt / Noah Teplin
Luisa … Tracy Nygard
Carla … Heather Hannon / Aimee Doherty
Claudia … Kate deLima
Guido’s Mother … Karen Fanale
Liliane LaFleur … Linda Goetz
Lina Darling … Jessica Linquata
Stephanie Necrophorus …Shannon Muhs
Our Lady of the Spa … Jocelyne O’Toole
Mama Maddelena … Julia Madeson
Sarraghina … Shiba Nemat-Nasser
Maria … Alicia Russo
A Venetian Gondolier … Victoria Strafuss
Giulietta … Lauren Hopkins
Annabella … Kimberly Schaeffer
Francesca … Kat Aberle
Diana … Deb Poppel
Renata … Victoria Strafuss
Olga Von Sturm … Dylan Bullard
Heidi Von Sturm … Jaclyn Coppens
Ilsa Von Hesse … Jessica Brusilow
Gretchen Von Krupf … Meryl Atlas
Young Guido’s Schoolmates … Sam Schlesinger / Nick Galatis
Understudy to Guido … Ben DiScipio

Orchestra:

Conductor / Keyboard … Wayne Ward
Percussion … Steve Jounakos
Bass … Corey DiMario; Rob Orr; Dave Weisman
Trumpet … Tim Cote
Trombone … Anthony Hudson
Woodwind … Heather Katz; Lisa Hudson

I came away pleased from Turtle Lane’s production of the Tony Award-winning musical NINE --- my pleasure being doubled, considering how, musical-wise, the Boston area boasts many fine singers but no dancers, a solid clutch of professional leading ladies but few professional leading men, that there are community theatre artists of high enough caliber to have encouraged Turtle Lane to take a gamble on NINE's complexities in the first place --- Opening Night was pleasant fun with sparkles of brilliance; may it grow to truly dazzle.

NINE is a musicalization of Federico Fellini’s 8½, his 1963 film à clef about Guido, a celebrated film director suffering from a mid-life crisis and an artistic mental block; Mr. Fellini wallows in self-indulgence (he is very much the auteur, here) but there are still-haunting juxtapositions of Guido’s past and present, all in stunning black-and-white cinematography and gorgeously scored and costumed. For NINE, librettist Arthur Kopit enlarges on only one of the film’s episodes --- the celebrated dream sequence where the women in Guido’s life are brought together to alternately coddle and combat him --- and sets it at the spa (here, Venice) where Guido goes to cool his kindled nerves (I read somewhere that “8½” is supposedly the number of films Mr. Fellini had made up to that point in time; NINE takes its title from a key song in the show). Aside from Guido as a young boy, the mature Guido is the one male character on a stage filled with females; by ridding the slender plot of the film’s men who more or less represent Guido’s artistic life, Mr. Kopit upsets the balance: now using only Guido’s numerous women, NINE becomes a one-note study of a failed Casanova rather than a fascinating look at a man ever-shifting between art/fantasy and reality; it may help to (re)view the film beforehand to have an inking as to what Mr. Kopit’s hero is supposedly all about. On the plus side, Maury Yeston’s evocative score may not match Nino Rota’s soundtrack, raffish and decadent and so inseparable from Mr. Fellini’s vision, but it works very well within the confines of the show; if Guido now registers as a blank (James Fitzpatrick, Turtle Lane’s Guido, failed to catch fire on Opening Night), the Messrs. Kopit and Yeston more than compensate with a gallery of turns from his women; just as Guido gazes upon his wife, his mother, his current mistress, etc., the audience in turn can gaze upon a number of actresses portraying them --- the evening begins marvelously with the women appearing a little at a time (at the spa and in Guido’s cranium), dressed in various styles of black, and settling about like Tippi Hedren’s crows on the jungle gym; their growing chatter overlapping in a seductive din --- and only then does music enter in; ah, if the rest of NINE could have been as imaginative! (Check out French & Sanders’ send-up of Fellini in their “Living in a Material World” DVD, which captures the master’s style in a few minutes’ playing time --- they even take on Ingmar Bergman’s gloominess, for good measure.)

The Turtle Lane production is particularly intriguing since a woman --- Elaina Vrattos --- has directed this evening of a man’s subjective look at women. A male director, approaching from the outside, would undoubtedly transform them into mythical creatures (women are mysterious only because men make them so and women respond in kind to attract them); Ms. Vrattos’ ensemble is more earthbound --- “real”, if you will --- but, with two exceptions, their magic is reduced, which shows most clearly in the female leads: Tracy Nygard, in fine anthem voice, is granite-hard as Luisa the betrayed wife (Guido’s continued wanderings thus become all too understandable); Heather Hannon as Carla the mistress has an endearing Monroe-like squeak in her throat but comes off as a child fearful of being caught writhing about in see-through lingerie (her results are awkward and abashed rather than worldly or erotic); Kate deLima, as Claudia the hand-picked film star, is a Vogue dream when still, with her sausage curls and black ball gown, a gloved hand ever touching the creamy white of her shoulders --- when not still, she tumbles down to fishwife. The two exceptions are Shiba Nemat-Nasser and Linda Goetz who play, without apology, two traditional roles: the temptress and the siren. As Sarraghina, the earth-mother who initiates the young Guido into the mysteries of her sex, Ms. Nemat-Nasser boasts a majestic girth and a rich contralto --- both are put to good use in her showstopper “Think Italian”, which begins with one tambourine and ends with an entire stage full of them; the number is a lively (and healthy) one but Ms. Nemat-Nasser’s expression remains solemn and mysterious, throughout; many more boys will come for lessons before she returns to the earth. Ms. Goetz portrays Liliane LaFleur, the no-nonsense film producer (a man in the Fellini version) who insists that Guido’s new film be a musical and demonstrates by launching into a tribute to the Folies Bergeres; the cool, redheaded Ms. Goetz peels off her business dress to reveal a greyhound-lean body in a one-piece outfit and, damn, if Gwen Verdon hasn’t returned in all her leggy glory. Ms. Goetz works the audience at length (an improvised moment?) --- how nice not to see a microphone box strapped to her bare back --- then returns to the stage to wrap herself in an endless feather boa; women may think it corny but it is an image that a man will remember for some time.

Considering there are no dance numbers in NINE, Karen Fogerty’s stagings, especially for “The Germans at the Spa” sequence are so clever that they justify being called choreography (it’s amazing what she does with a number of women who are not trained dancers); since Turtle Lane’s stage is small and the ensemble is large, Jeff Gardiner’s set design is several levels high which allows everyone to be seen all at once but also leads to much clumping about in the dark between scene changes; what seems to be gleaming tiles are really dozens of hand-painted squares on flats – amazing! Richard Itczak’s costumes swathes everyone with plenty of character and class, beginning all in black and finishing in breathtaking white; only when he dabbles in color does his imagination (and his budget) fail him.

Despite these Opening Night reservations, this production, though it may not be a “10”, is definitely not a “nein”.

"Nine" (23 April - 30 May)
TURTLE LANE PLAYHOUSE
283 Melrose Street, NEWTON, MA
1 (617) 244-0169

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