note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Years ago, when I interviewed composer/lyricist Maury Yeston at North Shore Music Theatre, when his musical, “Phantom” appeared there, he was enthusiastic, a spritely, happy-go-lucky fella, whose lightheartedness was infectious. One would never guess he were a famous, award-winning composer with one hit show after another. While watching SpeakEasy Stage Company’s lush production of Yeston’s wildly successful musical, “Nine,” that’s based on the multi-award winning movie, “8-1/2,” that enjoyed a star-studded resurgence on the silver screen, I could picture Yeston smiling broadly, clapping his hands with glee. Indeed, the cast, set, costumes, lighting and sound effects belie the small theater’s stature, adding a Broadway appeal that’s enough to make veteran theatergoers oooh and aaaah.
SpeakEasy Director Paul Daigneault, who has created several award winners, continues to wow audiences in “Nine” by gathering a superlative cast. Each actor plays his and her role to the hilt, shocking us, pleasing us by capturing every comical, dramatic, emotional and musical high point.
Timothy John Smith as famous, lecherous Italian director Guido Contini sizzles with sexuality, and incenses with his devil-may-care exploitation of all women within his reach, including his patient, understanding wife, Luisa, who is his rock, redeemer, and stabilizer. Aimee Doherty is ideal as Luisa, her deep tones capturing her frustration during an onslaught of paparazzi who ask probing questions about her husband’s fidelity, in her self-sacrificing song, “My Husband Makes Movies”.
Pretty, petite McCaela Donovan initially looks miscast as Guido’s longtime mistress, Carla, because of her girl-next-door looks; but her hip-swinging gyrations make her even more sensuous, like a siren with Lolita overtones. Every member of Contini’s harem is sublime, from Cheryl McMahon as his dignified, loving mother in flashbacks and apparitional appearances, to bombastic Kerry A. Dowling, who is initially a formidable nun, but doffs her habit, transitioning to Sarraghina, a zaftig whore who lives on the edge of town and corrupts angelic 9-year-old Guido (Erik March) by shockingly teaching him to be an Italian lover in “Ti Voglio Bene”. Dowling’s exploitive scenes with the child are so graphic, she’s a mother’s worst nightmare.
Contini is filmdom’s international bad boy who has catapulted to fame and fortune for years, until his luck runs out. He has produced three flops, and he also feels threatened because he’s almost 40 years old. Several times, his childhood image flashes simultaneously with his illicit behavior and deeds, linking reality with daydreams and fantasy. Erik March is the essence of childlike innocence, a sharp contrast to the decadent adult who refuses to grow up, even when the boy sings “Getting Tall”.
Child Guido’s exposure to an evil woman should evoke our sympathy and understanding of how he became a disgusting chauvinist, especially after his adoring women, one by one, leave him. Instead, we secretly applaud their exodus, and like little Guido and his mother, hope he’ll shape up and grow up.
Music Director Nicholas James Connell on keyboard and his group of six musicians raise Yeston’s music to the rafters, even during rich ensemble numbers such as “Coda di Guido,” and Maureen Keiller and Co.‘s zesty “Folies Bergeres”.
Eric Levenson’s handsome set, a series of classic blue arches with en bas changing media images, and a centrally placed, communal fount/fountain, is functional yet elaborate, and Charles Schoonmaker’s magnificent costumes resemble a haute couture Parisian runway.
Rounding out the cast in this not-to-be-missed spectacular musical are incomparably talented Shana Dirik as Mama Maddelena; beautiful Jennifer Ellis as Claudia, Guido’s favorite movie star and muse; lovely Kami Rushell Smith as Our Lady of the Spa; Julia Broder, Amy Jackson, Holly King, Brittany Morello, Rachel Prather, and Santina Umbach. Newburyport’s March and Newton’s Andrew Stewart alternate shows as little Guido.
BOX INFO: Two-act musical, based on Federico Fellini’s movie “8-1/2,” adapted from the Italian by Mario Fratti; book by Arthur Kopit, music, lyrics by Maury Yeston, appearing now through Feb. 20, at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Roberts Studio Theatre, Stanford Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., South End, Boston. Showtimes are Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. Tickets, $30-$57; under 25, $25; seniors, $5 discount; student rush an hour before curtain, $14. Call the Box Office at 617-933-8600 or visit www.BostonTheatreScene.com.