Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
I have seen Nineseveral times before, but neither of the Broadway productions. The central role of Guido Contini seems to demand huge amounts of charisma as the character behaves without much regard for the multiple women he loves, yet the audience must take him to their hearts for the musical to work properly. Raul Julia in the original Broadway production lacked the warmth I would desire (based only on the cast album) and Daniel Day Lewis in the movie was badly miscast, without singing ability. Only Antonio Banderas (again based on the cast album only) comes close to making our hero likable. Today, were I to try and cast this musical for Broadway, only Marc Kudisch, Hugh Jackman or maybe Jake Gyllenhaal seem up to the task.
Nine is problematic in other ways as well. I am a big Maury Yeston fan, love his musical Phantom which Manatee Players presented a few years ago, and adore his song cycle December Songs. The cast recording for the failed Death Takes a Holiday is one of my guiltiest pleasures. Nine contains moments of great beauty ("Only With You," "The Bells of St. Sebastian," "Unusual Way," and then the sequence of songs that end the second act ("Simple," "Be On Your Own," and "Getting Tall"). But the audience is also required to slog through some of the most tedious music ever heard in a Tony Winning best musical, which includes "Not Since Chaplin," "The Germans at the Spa," "Folies Bergeres," and the 15 minute "The Grand Canal." Every major production number is musically dull. What I will never be able to wrap my head around is that Nine won the Best Musical Tony over the absolutely perfect Dreamgirls, probably one of the 10 greatest musicals of all times.
Turning to one of Manatee Players' favorite past leading men, Omar Montes, to play Guido is a fine idea. I can't imagine anyone active in local community theater who could better attempt this role. He manages dashing, petulant, childish and insecure very well on the acting side. He does not project enough charisma to make Guido truly sympathetic. His singing is solid, but he does rise up to dominate "The Bells of St. Sebastian" and "Only with You" didn't quite land the evening I saw the production. He does make "The Grand Canal" visually interesting, even if no one could salvage the musical end. When all is crashing around Guido emotionally, he is at his best and for a bit we begin to care.
Melanie Bierweiler continues her close association with director Cory Boyas as Guido's wife Luisa. She sings well, but is perhaps a touch young for the role, which would ideally require a bit more emotional depth, available from a woman of 30-plus years, not so much from someone younger. Christina Capehart is Carla, Guido's mistress, in a fine performance. She is vocally very strong and captures the sultry in "A Call From the Vatican" and is moving in "Simple," although her character is not the emotional center of the scene, but commenting on it. Sarah Cassidy plays Claudia, an actress Guido was once in love with. She gets to sing what I believe may be the most beautiful song ever written for a musical, "Unusual Way." I have heard many incredible renditions of this song, and hers is equal to any and all of them. Ellen Kleinschmidt delivers nicely as Liliane La Fleur, Guido's producer. Asher Woomert plays young Guido and provides sweetness to balance the self-centered older version.
It is hard to really assess director Cory Boyas' contribution because Nine is such a difficult musical. It is hard to imagine a really first rate production without access to a huge talent pool, which is not often available at the this level. That he was able to provide a decent Guido and three fine performances as the most important females in our hero's life suggests that he has done good work. William Coleman's musical direction is straightforward but misses the European and operetta influences in Yeston's score, depriving the audience of ideal atmosphere. Scenic design by Caleb Carrier is simple but effective. Costume design by Makenzie Vaughan tries to suggest European mid-century chic, but falls short, probably because of budget restraints. Joseph P. Oshry, as always, provides sympathetic lighting design.
I'm delighted when our local non-professional theaters take a risk, and Nine is a tough nut to crack under any circumstances. The musical itself is responsible for some of the problems with this production, but there are some fine moments during the evening.
Manatee Players presents Nine through January 28, 2018, at Manatee Center for the Performing Arts, 502 3rd Ave W., Bradenton FL. For tickets and information, call 941-748-0111 or visit manateeplayers.com.