Also see John's review of In a Dark, Dark House
Nine, the second of Porchlight's two productions this season celebrating the collaborations of composer-lyricist Maury Yeston and playwright Arthur Kopit, makes a strong case for the piece as an important work, one as deserving of attention and study as many of the works of Sondheim. Like Sondheim's musicals, it experiments with form, explores complex emotional themes and boasts a rich and intricate score. The relative neglect given to Nine by musical theatre practitioners in the nineteen years between its two successful Broadway productions may simply have been due to the daunting demands of the piece – its challenging score and the need for virtuoso vocals and abundant charisma from the performer in the leading role of film director Guido Contini.
Jeff Parker, Bethany Thomas (center) and the ladies of Nine
With this production, Porchlight gives the piece its due, but even more impressively, gives us a caliber of performance we might not have thought possible from a mostly non-Equity cast and the performance space of the Theatre Building Chicago. Once again, Eugene Dizon shows why he's always the one to beat for Music Direction at the annual Jeff Awards. His cast gives Yeston's sensational score a reading that beats either of the Broadway cast recordings. Additionally, his reduction of Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations to five pieces works amazingly well. Visually, stage director Walter Stearns and set designer Kevin Depinet found a logical way to make creative use of the black box auditorium by exposing bare the upstage wall (seating is on three sides of the playing area) and establishing the playing space as a film company soundstage. This opening up of the playing area further gives more room to Stearns and Choreographer Brenda Didier for movement, and apparently more flexibility with lighting effects (designed by Julian H. Pike) than I've previously seen in the space. Thus, the creative team is able to keep us surprised and this show looks and feels different from musicals previously produced in this space by Porchlight and other companies. They're able to deliver the fluidity the piece requires in moving backwards and forwards in time and space as the director Guido deals with his mid-life crisis by examining past events in his life.
Equity or not, the casting is nearly perfect and contains its share of surprises as well. Jeff Parker, who plays Guido, is the only Equity player in the cast. He has toiled regularly in ensemble roles in area Equity houses like the Goodman and the Marriott, but to my knowledge has never had a chance to show his vocal skills as he does here - nailing every one of Guido's many notes in this score. Who would have known there was such a leading man inside his chorus roles in shows like Bounce and The Visit ? He looks Italian enough and captures the character's angst. I didn't find him quite as successful at communicating the charm and charisma that would have endeared Guido to the women in his life, and I'm not sure he quite figured out a way that Guido would move. It's impossible, however unfair, not to compare him to my memory of Antonio Banderas in the role. Moving up from ensemble parts to carrying a show in a role this demanding is challenging enough without expecting the guy to compete with the charisma and built-in imagery of international film celebrity that Banderas brought to the role. Banderas would love to sing so well as Parker, though, and I would like to see Parker in the role again in a few years, if not a few months, as I would expect he would begin to inhabit the character more fully.
That Stearns was able to fill all the women's roles with such perfect voices and still cast mostly to type – and to desired height, as most of them are tall and made taller through heels so to emphasize their power over Guido – is a testament to the depth of the talent in Chicago's non-Equity musical theater performer pool.
Heather Townsend is stunning and touching as Luisa, Guido's long-suffering wife. Maggie Portman, a knockout as Evelyn Nesbit in Ragtime and Squeaky Fromme in Assassins (both for Porchlight last season), is funny and seductive as Guido's mistress Carla. Her "Call From the Vatican" is performed in a bathtub, which is re-used for the scene between little Guido and his mother, but the tub also ingeniously is reused as a gondola in "The Grand Canal." As Guido's actress-muse Claudia, Marie Svejda-Groh simultaneously communicates empathy for Guido as well as the ability to resist his charms. Kristen Freilich is a younger-than-usual, but probably more age-appropriate when you think about it, mother to Guido. Brigitte Ditmars is suitably intimidating as the critic Stephanie Necrophorus, interpreted by Stearns here as a dominatrix.
The supporting roles include showcases for two of the more talented and distinctive performers in the Chicago community. Bethany Thomas uses her earthiness and comic skills as the village prostitute Saraghina, and her big voice is perfect for "Be Italian." The equally powerful and infinitely versatile Danielle Brothers is in complete control as Guido's producer Liliane La Fleur and is a knockout in her production number "Folies Bergeres." Little Matthew Gold is a charmer as young Guido.
Nine is such a challenging piece it's not surprising theatre companies have been hesitant to tackle it. In addition to the demands of the score and script, it requires visual design that can keep the audience on firm footing to understand the stream-of-consciousness action and thin plot of the story that is taken from the screenplay of Fellini's 8-1/2. Stearns and his team manage to maintain narrative clarity even as the action moves from the spa, which Guido and Luisa visit, to Guido's childhood home and school, and the set of Guido's film. Depinet's scenic design, together with Pike's lighting, contribute much toward establishing time and place. A large Italianate portrait of a nude woman dominates the stage – simultaneously suggesting the décor of the spa as well as reinforcing Guido's infatuation with women. Pike's lighting changes from bright white to reds, signaling the movement from reality to places in Guido's memory. Costumes by Bill Morey are mostly black, which seems appropriately Italian and fashionable while neutral enough to travel through time and memory.
With Nine's setting in the world of film and its rich, larger than life characters, the approach of recent productions (the Broadway revival and the upcoming film version to be directed by Rob Marshall) to cast celebrity actors who can sing rather than casting musical theater performers, is understandable. Still, the score is just too good to pass up a chance to hear it sung this well - and in a fully realized production that understands and intelligently communicates its provocative themes. For either the newcomer or those revisiting this piece, Porchlight's Nine is a great opportunity to dig into this very meaty musical.
Porchlight Music Theatre will present Nine at Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through May 18, 2008. For tickets call the box office at Theatre Building Chicago at 773-327-5252 or visit www.theatrebuildingchicago.org. Tickets are also available through Ticketmaster at 312-902-1500 or www.ticketmaster.com.