Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit's musical, Nine, was an odd choice to conclude the Starlight Theatre's season in San Diego, as the rest of the season featured such audience-pleasers as Crazy For You, Into The Woods and My Fair Lady. Perhaps artistic director Brian Wells understood that his choice, a musical based on Federico Fellini's classic film, 8 ½, might prove troubling for an audience that enjoyed a "kids free" ticket policy on Thursday and Sunday evenings, because he scheduled the show's run in September and October, when Thursdays and Sundays would be school nights.
Nine tells the story of an Italian film director who is turning 40 and is experiencing a midlife crisis. His relationship with his wife is failing, his mistress is pressing him to leave his wife for her, and he has promised to go into production on his next film but he's blocked on ideas for that film. Meanwhile, women swirl around him in tempting fashion, and he is haunted by the memories of his sexual initiation, at age nine. Kopit's book swirls in surreal fashion as well, and Yeston's music and lyrics complement the book's mood but add very little humor to the mix. This is not necessarily a terrific show to put on in a 4,300-seat outdoor amphitheatre.
Starlight, currently in its 62nd season, tends to hire Equity actors in leading roles and non-Equity actors for supporting or ensemble parts. For Nine, most of the actors are local. Mauricio Mendoza plays Guido Contini, the film director with the midlife crisis. Mr. Mendoza sings and acts well enough but lacks the sex appeal to make the audience believe that beautiful women would be swarming over him. The women who figure most directly in Guido's life, Amy Ashworth Biedel as his wife, Stephanie Burkett Gerson as his mistress, and Gail Bennett as his muse, fare somewhat better. Ms. Biedel, who was so good as all of the women characters in this summer's production of Yank!, doesn't have as much to work with here, but she both suffers and sings well. Ms. Bennett, the only out-of-towner in the cast, registers sharply in her primarily second-act appearances. Ms. Gerson mostly is content to play a sexpot rather than to explore the hurt her character feels.
In companies like Starlight, there are always regulars whom the audience grows to know and love. Two such regulars appear in this production. Debbie Nicastro brings a sensitive presence and a beautiful voice to the role of Guido's mother. But Leigh Scarritt, as the producer of Guido's film, chews the scenery shamelessly. Unfortunately, her fans in the audience were delighted with her every bite.
The ensemble features some very attractive women with lovely individual singing voices, but the choral work was sloppy much of the time. The ensemble also performs Carlos Mendoza's simplistic choreography in a fairly rote manner.
Starlight skimped on the sets (designed by Terry McCambridge), and set pieces are more or less left as onstage debris when not in use. But it didn't skimp on Tanya Bishop's stylish costumes, nor on the 16-piece orchestra with nary a synthesizer in earshot (though tuning was a problem throughout the evening). Parmer Fuller serves as musical director and conductor.
The performance I saw must have been tough on all concerned, however, as only about 100 audience members showed up.
Nine has been an interesting but failed experiment, though I was glad to have an opportunity to see it. Starlight plans to bounce back to its formula next season, with productions of High School Musical, The Producers, Sunday in the Park with George, and "A Beloved, Tony Award Winning Musical the whole family will enjoy" (Hairspray, perhaps?).
Nine, book by Arthur Kopit, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, produced by Starlight Theatre in Balboa Park closes October 5. Tickets at (619) 544-7827, or at www.StarlightTheatre.org. Staged and directed by Brian Wells and Carlos Mendoza, lighting by Jason Bieber, Costumes by Tanya Bishop, Sound by Michael Gustafson, set by Terry McCambridge. Featuring Mauricio Mendoza, Amy Ashworth Biedel, Stephanie Burkett Gerson, Gail Bennett, Leigh Scarritt, Samara Otero, Debbie Nicastro, Carolyn Stevenson, Jessica Wheeler, Karla Ruth Gilbert, Benjamin Shaffer, Karen Johnson, Courtney Evans, Maggie-Jo Turner, and Kathleen Calvin.