6/3/2021 NINE Jennie T. Anderson Theatre Concert Series
STYLE AND SUBSTANCE
Nine is a musical with a very unusual pedigree. Based on what many consider Federico Fellini’s masterpiece, 8½, its original production traded cinematic razzle-dazzle for theatrical flourish, and was largely successful in doing so. A 2009 movie version was a major “mis-fire,” although it had a few moments to remember. Now, the Jennie T. Anderson Concert Series has jettisoned all pretense of style and given us a concert version that strips the show to its basic elements – music and performance. The result is surprisingly effective and memorable.
Before going into my commentary on this production, let me trot out my “background template” used in my review of the 2009 film.
Fellini’s film, made in 1963, is a cinema geek’s wet dream. A movie about moviemaking, it shows us Maestro Guido Contini mired in a creative block. He is ready to make his next masterpiece, but he doesn’t have a clue where to begin. Fellini mixes fantasy and reality at random, until real life and reel life collide in a phantasmagoria of fantasy and disappointment, ending in an elegiac musical parade of all the figures in Guido’s life. Watching it in 2009 was a little deflating. Stripped of its style and visionary structure, there’s not much there – and what’s there is a tad smug and self-serving, too infused with a sixties Italian macho to fully withstand the “test of time” as well as Fellini’s earlier masterpieces (especially La Strada and Nights of Cabiria). Yes, Fellini lets us into Guido’s imagination, but, to my middle-aged eyes, it is a sadly prurient and childish imagination – which, I daresay, was Fellini’s point all along. Still, I’ll bet you anything that another twenty years will make these minor disappointments disappear into moody nitpicking, and the film will be restored to the pantheon of my all-time favorites.
Nine was developed by songwriter Maury Yeston between 1973 and 1983. When Playwright Arthur Kopit and Director Tommy Tune joined the project, it developed into a very stylistic journey into Guido’s obsession with women as well as his writer’s block. Essentially re-telling the 8½ story and stripped of its juggling of fantasy and experience, the musical put the whole thing in Guido’s head. One Actor and a chorus of women told the entire story, with a young boy occasionally coming on stage as the young Guido. The play scraps the movie’s remarkable finale for a gentle epiphany, as Guido “makes peace” with his younger self and goes on to make the movie that will be his 9.
Since this is a concert version of the show, we see the actors in front of the orchestra, with scripts close at hand, though kudos to the cast for rarely – if ever – referring to the scripts. A “rehearsal cube” center stage and a pair of rolling stained-glass wall units provide the only set pieces. But director Susan Reid has wisely chosen to make her minimal blocking underscore and enhance each scene – the opening vocal “overture” has Guido (a most excellent Juan Carlos Unzueta) sitting amidst all the standing women, basking in the adoration of their ecstatic “La La La” refrains, not noticing how ironically bitter most of them appear. Closest to him are his wife Luisa (Diany Rodriguez) and mistress Carla (Emma Yaniger), giving him free rein to lavish adoring glances at whichever woman is occupying his thoughts at any particular moment.
As the plot progresses (a plot that has him visiting a spa in an effort to break his writer’s block), each woman gets an opportunity to join him for what become very pointed interactions. In addition to his wife and mistress, these include his producer (Jillian Melko), a critic who has always thought him over-rated (Janine Ayn), his mother (Christy Baggett), his “muse” – an actress who is tired of playing the “same role” in every movie (Natalie Pitchford), an earthy beach prostitute from Guido’s childhood (Jessica de Maria), Guido’s younger self (Connor Jacobs), and a pair of spa employees (Megan Zhang and Tetrianna Beasley). Six additional talented women fill out the ensemble.
Guido’s imagination recreates moments of his past and infects moments of his present building to a highly effective scene in which everyone leaves him alone on stage, letting him reconcile with all his bad choices and fond memories.
Yes, because of the concert format, it is sometimes a challenge to know what is past and what is present, but that is quickly overcome by Mr. Unzueta’s marvelous readings and reactions. It is always clear where (and when) we are.
And Maury Yeston’s memorable score takes wing in the talents of this finely tuned cast. Ms. Rodriguez’ “Be on Your Own” is especially compelling. Equally impressive are Ms. Melko’s “Follies Bergères” (with a great counter-melody from Ms. Ayn), Ms. Baggett’s lullaby (“Nine”), Ms. Pitchford’s “In a Very Unusual Way” (with another marvelous counter-melody from Mr. Unzueta), and Ms. de Maria’s “Be Italian.” As Carla, the talented Emma Yaniger has two contrasting numbers that both “land” successfully – the sensuously erotic “A Call From the Vatican” and the ruefully regretful “Simple.” Kudos to Musical Director Amanda Wansa Morgan keeping the choral moments consistently elegant and the solo moments note-perfect.
If Nine is a model of the excellence to come with the remaining entries in the Anderson series, I look forward to each and every one of them – Chess in July, Sunday in the Park With George in October, and White Christmas in (when else?) December. These are short runs, so I highly recommend you plan out your calendars as soon as you can.
For now, though, Nine is a good fit for your streaming screens, and, I daresay, it would be just as good (perhaps even better) live and in person.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #Nine #JennieTAndersonTheatre)