Based on the Federico Fellini classic film 8 ½, Nine earned five 1982 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and the 2003 revival took home two more. The 2009 film adaptation was also nominated for a slew of awards, but was resoundingly panned by the critics. If you were unable to experience the show on Broadway, or you need to blot out the memory of the recent movie, run, don't walk, to the Boston Center for the Arts where all is right with this great musical.
The plot focuses on Contini's crisis of confidence as he faces his fortieth birthday at the same time that both his career and his marriage are floundering. Facing a deadlineand writer's blockto come up with a script for his next project, haunted by a spate of flops and childhood memories, and stretched beyond even his capacious capacity for female companionship, Guido desperately reaches for someone or something unwavering to cling to, real or imagined. The genius of Yeston and Kopit is in their ability to blur the boundaries, staging the scenes of Guido's inner life alongside his current reality, and employing Little Guido, a child-size version of the protagonist, to reenact the distant memories.
As a result, Guido's late mother (Cheryl McMahon) and the earthy prostitute Saraghina (Kerry Dowling), who taught him about love when he was a curious nine-year-old, are as vivid to him as his producer Liliane LaFleur (Maureen Keiller) and Mama Maddelena (Shana Dirik), the proprietress of the Venetian spa where the Continis repair to find some peace and save their marriage. Of course, nothing goes as planned and Guido learns that wherever you go, there you are, along with all of your accompanying ghosts and things that go bump in the night.
Smith is a bear of a man, both cuddly and intense, and he uses these traits to his advantage in his portrayal of Guido. He is passionate and joyful in his pursuit of women and his life's work, channeling his inner child even while gorging himself to sate his adult appetites. Smith doesn't look like a sex symbol, but his ability to convey childlike neediness and lack of vanity make him appealing to all these women. The guy also happens to have great pipes and a charming Italian accent.
Smith's contribution to the believability of the story is huge, but we can only understand Guido's life by understanding the many women who have played a part in his development. Daigneault wisely provides a showcase for the talents and emotions of each of the key women. Luisa, Carla and Claudia have the most interesting and richly developed internal stories, but even the minor players have a chance to shine in the ensemble numbers, particularly the songs of "The Grand Canal," Guido's ill-fated attempt to play Casanova on screen.
Aimee Doherty rises to a new level and brings maturity, a quiet intelligence, and fortitude to Guido's long-suffering wife Luisa. She hangs back in the shadow of her larger-than-life husband and his harem, at times watching over him like a proud and protective mother, at times seeing their life played out on celluloid, but always wearing her love like a shroud that only they have shared. Doherty will break your heart with Luisa's character song "My Husband Makes Movies," when Luisa realizes what she has sacrificed for Guido over the course of twenty years of marriage.
McCaela Donovan continues to impress as she becomes familiar to Boston audiences. Her angelic face belies her sexy, sensual antics as Carla, Guido's primary seductress, when she slithers across the floor toward her prey and wraps herself around Smith's legs and torso like an exotic vine ("A Call From the Vatican"). It's hard not to just gape at her physical gifts, but Donovan's lovely voice will tug at your heartstrings in her understated delivery of "Simple" when Carla, too, accepts her reality.
As the woman who may comprehend Guido best of all, Jennifer Ellis combines an innate sensuality and sad resignation in her characterization of Claudia, film star and the director's muse. Bearing a mild resemblance to Penelope Cruz, Ellis is a dark-haired beauty who commands attention from both Guido and the audience. Claudia is no lightweight; her interest in Guido is more as a soul mate, less for his animal magnetism. She has but one song of her own, the haunting "Unusual Way," but Ellis makes it hers and reinforces for me why it is one of my favorites in the score.
Yeston's score is a marvel of integration with every song developing character and/or advancing the story. Musical Director Nicholas James Connell and half a dozen musicians provide rich accompaniment, although occasionally overpowering the voices (my only complaint with Aaron Mack's otherwise effective sound design). David Connolly's choreography meets the challenge of maneuvering up to fifteen people around the modest space, and he offers humor in "The Germans at the Spa" and lots of flash in "Folies Bergeres."
However, dancing takes a back seat to singing with this ensemble made up of one amazing voice after another. In addition to the notable singers and songs I've already mentioned, a few others can't be overlooked. Dirik not only has a beautiful voice, but mugs mercilessly in "Germans," and McMahon and Kami Rushell Smith (Our Lady of the Spa) are a pair of Boston's finest vocalists. Dowling practically stops the show with her bawdy "Ti Voglio Bene/Be Italian" medley, and kudos to young Erik March (Little Guido at this performance) for his awestruck reactions to her instructions.
Eric Levenson's set is a simple wall with arch-shaped cutouts that serve to frame the women in several scenes, and a fountain center stage which figures prominently. Projections by Seághan Mckay are used to show a train, the beach, and the interior of St. Sebastian, Guido's Catholic boarding school. Jeff Adelberg's lighting design runs the gamut from dark and brooding to bright and colorful. Charles Schoonmaker dresses nearly everyone in black nearly all of the time, but he offers a stunning array of designs. Doherty and Ellis, in particular, look very smart in their little black dresses that suit their characters. On the other end of the spectrum, Dowling gets a lot of help defining her character with the deep décolletage on her lacy garment. When Schoonmaker does introduce color, it is in the form of a bright red/orange boa and can-can skirts for the girls in the Folies Bergeres and ornate golden brocade period costumes for the Casanova film.
In his Director's note in the program, Daigneault discloses that the original production of Nine with Raul Julia was his first Broadway show and that it remains one of his all-time favorite musicals. Perhaps that accounts for the great care and attention to detail that are obvious in the SpeakEasy Stage version. More important and more evident is the passion that pumps through each and every member of the cast as they give their all to bring this dynamic show to life. In the end, you'll be touched by the characters, you'll be humming the music, and you'll remember the passion.
Nine. Performances have been extended through February 26 at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston Center for the Arts; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.BostonTheatreScene.com. Book by Arthur Kopit, Music and Lyrics by Maury Yeston, Adaptation from the Italian by Mario Fratti, Directed by Paul Daigneault, Musical Direction by Nicholas James Connell, Choreography by David Connolly, Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker, Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, Projection Design by Seághan McKay, Sound Design by Aaron Mack, Production Stage Manager Amy Weissenstein, Assistant Stage Manager Emily Page
Cast (in order of appearance): Timothy John Smith, Aimee Doherty, McCaela Donovan, Cheryl McMahon, Amy Jackson, Maureen Keiller, Brittney Morello, Julia Broder, Santina Umbach, Kerry A. Dowling, Shana Dirik, Rachel Prather, Celia Hottenstein, Holly King, Jennifer Ellis, Kami Rushell Smith, Erik March, Andrew Stewart