note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
Russell R. Greene is one of the best directors working at the Vokes Theatre, and with the Arthur Kopit/Maury Yeston musical "Nine," he has really outdone himself, drawing around him designers and performers of great professional artistry. Few Boston productions can hold a candle to this show.
The comic but thoughtful "Nine" is closely tied to legendary director Fellini's flic "8-1/2." It's the story of a successful Italian film director and compulsive ladies' man who is suffering a midlife crisis. Enveloped and overwhelmed by the many adoring women in his life (from age nine on), he is having a hard time distinguishing memory from fantasy and fantasy from reality.
The question is: Will Guido Contini (David Berti) grow up or will he be a man only on the surface and remain on the inside just a Little Guido (charmingly played by Ryan Garvin)?
The film director, on the run from his French producer because he has signed her contract but can't come up with a script, convinces his wife, Luisa, to escape with him to a spa in Venice. Unsurprisingly, Guido's problems pursue him there, including the voluptuous Carla (Judi Ann Mavon Shattuck) and a bevy of beauties speaking French, Italian and German.
The spa, a spectacular design by Stephen McGonagle, evokes with its stylized Gothic arches and broad tiers of marble benches, the ecclesiastical environs of Guido's early years. Behind the arches, one glimpses at times a pale, impressionistic San Marco cathedral and bell tower alongside peaceful canals. Like the set, the music, directed by Mario Cruz and performed by a live orchestra, weaves religious themes with secular so that each informs and enriches the other.
D Schweppe's lighting is so evocative and refined it becomes another ghostly presence. Ann Carnaby's costumes suit each crazy character, and she made them all twice -- one collection in black, one in white. (Greene, who directed an all-black-and-white "Tomfoolery" earlier this year, has finally made the contrast work by limiting its role.) Donnie Baillargeon, too, deserves congratulations for producing a show of great complexity.
To a person, the cast is wonderful. Where did such actor-singers come from? Even those who have appeared at Vokes before seem freshly minted. It's probably unfair to single anyone out, but Vokes newcomer Ceit McCaleb was hilarious and utterly in control of her role as Guido's producer Liliane La Fleur. Her rendition of "Folies Bergeres" deserved an encore, but the audience, swept up in enchantment, was too eager to see what would happen next.
La Fleur's crony, Stephanie Necrophorus, the hard-edged critic, surely graduated from Bryn Mawr like this critic, who guffawed. Peri Choteau was effervescent as the spa's housekeeper and as a floozy in the play-within-the-play. Kristen Palson was the whore Guido remembers from childhood, delivering the song "Be Italian" with a flair guaranteed to set feet dancing. Sheila Rehrig's performance as Luisa was multilayered and touching. And singing the beautiful ballad that some audience members may have come especially to hear ("Unusual Way"), Rebekah Turner was haunting.
Is this escapist theater? Guido Contini wants to escape. Don't we all? There is nothing like an escape into art. But labeling art that makes people happy "escapist" is condescending and inaccurate. Guido's escape ultimately gives him the perspective to move on and grow. In the same way, delight can remind playgoers that art has always persisted in the midst of war and plague. Art can open a broader perspective that heals the soul. Any topic, even the personal crisis of a self-absorbed movie director, if done artistically with performers pouring their hearts into an intangible higher something, can have a mysterious and lasting effect. That is especially true of the community bonding that theater is when it works. And when did we need community bonding more?
Advance buzz has caused Beatrice Herford's Vokes Theatre to extend the run through Nov. 17. Vokes parking is a downer. Allow half an hour to exit. It's a persistent problem that could be solved by one crew member with a bullhorn. For ticket information, call (508) 358-4034.
[Review first appeared in the Wayland Town Crier, Colleen Egan editor]