In recent years, Wright State University (WSU) in Dayton, Ohio has been earning a positive reputation for both the strength of their theatre program and the unique mix of classics and newer shows which they present. The college's current production is the musical Nine, which has gained renewed interest due to the recent Broadway revival starring Antonio Banderas. This challenging and sensual show is given a worthwhile mounting by WSU, and it showcases the school's talented students well.
Nine tells the story of Guido Contini, a forty-year old film director who is going through a midlife crisis. The once successful director is coming off of three consecutive flops and, though his next film is slated to begin filming in less than a week, Guido doesn't even have an idea for the movie's plot, let alone a script from which to work. Contini's preoccupation with women (wife, mistress, muse/ex-lover, producer, etc.) distracts him from meeting the demands of his occupation. Also leading to his meltdown is the conflict created between Guido's eagerness to feed his childlike immaturity and the need to resolve the problems of his very adult predicaments.
Nine's book is by Arthur Kopit (based on Frederico Fellini's autobiographical film 8 1/2), and the execution of this story is both a leading asset and an extreme liability to the piece. The plot unfolds to a large degree via fantasies, memories, and insecurities conjured up in Guido's head, in addition to the actual events occurring in his life. The nonlinear storytelling of the piece is richly theatrical and intriguing. However, the chaos created can also cause confusion for theatergoers and requires quick analysis and attention to detail to adequately decipher.
The show is character-driven (rather than plot-driven), and there is a certain reliance on fully realized portrayals to clearly communicate the nuances of the show. Love is expressed in deep emotions such as heartbrokenness, rage, lust, and devotion, and these feelings must be convincingly conveyed to generate empathy for these characters. An audience's reaction can depend somewhat on whether they view Guido as a hopeless romantic or simply as a self-absorbed womanizer.
The score for Nine by Maury Yeston (Titanic, Phantom) is intelligent and moving. The music contains melodies in an old-fashioned musical theater style, but crafted with a unique level of sophistication. The lyrics generally are witty and vibrant. The straightforward material, such as "Guido's Song," "Only With You," "A Call From The Vatican," "Unusual Way," "Be On Your Own," and "Getting Tall," is immensely effective, praiseworthy, and memorable. As in many of his shows, Yeston's ability to write outstanding and enchanting choral pieces is on full display in Nine, with the sung "Overture" one of many examples of this under-appreciated skill. The songs written for some of the extended scenes (which are also the least well-written book scenes), however, are much less compelling.
Director Joe Deer quickly establishes a dramatic tension and sets the frantic story into motion by using a video montage of quotes from the female characters, telling their opinions of the protagonist. There are a number of beautifully rendered stage pictures, and the necessary sense of urgency is intact throughout. However, the decision to include the superfluous song/scene "The Germans at the Spa," which was wisely cut in the recent revival, is a detriment, as it impedes the show just as the audience is getting to know and connect with the characters.
Nine is a highly choreographed show, and the dances and movement are excellent as provided by Teresa Wylie McWilliams. Musical Director David Hapner leads a strong fourteen-piece on-stage orchestra.
As Guido, Nick Verina has plenty of charisma and displays impeccable singing vocals, effortlessly tackling the large musical demands of the role. As his long-suffering wife Luisa, Sydney Lanier gives a carefully detailed performance and is a capable singer. Amelia Sheperd demonstrates powerful vocals and sultry moves as Guido's mistress Carla. Samantha Servais is a very poised Claudia, and sings with a pure and dignified voice. Praiseworthy performances are provided by Liz Wheeler (Lilliane Le Fleur), Stephanie Thompson (Stephanie Necrophorus), Alicia Rodis (Saraghina), faculty member Sherri Sutter (Guido's mother), and Varun Rao (Young Guido), as well as the remaining members of the ensemble.
The accents used by the cast sound authentic and consistent, thanks in part to Dialect Coach Joseph Bates. Despite impressive individual performances, the characterizations in general seem to be missing a certain level of depth and understanding that further life experiences will likely bring to these young performers. The task of portraying forty-year olds when you are only in your late teens or early twenties is a daunting one, and not quite meeting this goal within the confines of such a complex piece is no cause for shame.
The inventive set design by Don David uses multi-tiered boxes built on scaffolds, all surrounding a circular main performance area. Beautiful scenic curtains are unveiled after intermission, during "The Grand Canal," bringing color to the visual package and helping to define the setting. The sexy black, white, and gray costumes by D. Bartlett Blair are perfectly suited and Adam Bergeron's lighting is professionally designed.
Nine is a difficult musical to stage and perform, and Wright State University presents a solid production that showcases many strong performances, intelligent material, and first-rate direction, choreography, and design. Nine continues at WSU through February 29, and tickets can be ordered by calling (937) 775-2500.