Fellini-inspired musical felled by bad acting, lack of substance

By William Glick

[img id=”80447″ align=”alignleft”] At the 1982 Tony Awards, two musicals were deadlocked for the big prize: Dreamgirls, the pop musical based on the career of Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Nine, Maury Yeston’s musical loosely based on the 1963 Fellini film, 8 1/2. While it may have seemed that the more popular choice would take the top prize, Nine ultimately prevailed. Musicals like Nine, dealing with complicated topics like love, age, dreams, childhood, and inspiration, were certainly a rare breed in the 1980s, when Broadway was dominated by the pop operas of Andrew Lloyd Weber. Nine, therefore, stands as one of modern musical theater’s most nuanced achievements, basing its entertainment on character rather than sets and its score on elegant harmonies rather than broad familiarity.

Nine tells the story of film director Guido Contini and his struggle to find inspiration for his next project. As he does this, the script loosely shows us his relationships to the various women who move in and out of his life and how they affect him personally and professionally. He ultimately decides to make a film opera based on the life of Casanova. However, during the shooting, his personal and professional lives become deeply intertwined, resulting in disastrous consequences for the filmmaker. To summarize Nine, though, is to undervalue it. The show’s real brilliance comes from the specific relationships that Contini has with the many women that drive the drama.

When I went to see a production of Nine at the Porchlight Theatre on the north side, I certainly had high expectations, knowing both the material and its origins. A musical based on the work of Federico Fellini would immediately suggest that one is seeing more than musical entertainment—I was looking forward to a musical drama with detailed performances and direction firmly rooted in Fellini’s broad themes. However, this production of Nine is one that largely stays on the surface of the source material and satisfies its audience mainly through pandering and over-the-top theatrics.

The truth is that most of the actors in this production seemed to be working from The Manual for High School Theater. It appeared, to me at least, that there was a tacit agreement among the cast to fit in as many hand gestures as possible in a single line or speech, which was certainly distracting. The actors also enjoyed conveying their characters mainly through the modes of overarticulation and caricature. This was especially evident in Maggie Portman’s portrayal of Carla, Contini’s mistress. While Carla is a sexual character, she is far more complicated than that, as seen in her solo “Simple.” Unfortunately, Portman spent two hours mugging for the audience rather than trying to convey anything beneath the sex.

The two leads, Jeff Parker as Contini and Heather Townsend as his wife Luisa, are average at best. Parker plows through his solo, simply titled “Guido’s Song,” without ever really coming near the existential struggle that the song presents. The only thing he seemed to struggle with, actually, was what to do with his hands. However, once the expectations were lowered, his performance proved fine—he certainly sings the role well and is entertaining enough to make the show somewhat pleasurable. Townsend, as Luisa, is definitely the subtlest of the performers, which is certainly an asset, but she simply cannot sing the role. In her two solos, she often has to resort to a crude form of speak-singing, which undermines the Yeston score.

If you can, however, accept the show’s overall amateurish tone, there are parts of it that succeed. For example, Bethany Thomas, who plays the prostitute Sarraghina, sings the song “Ti Voglio Bene” with great force and showmanship. Also, Marie Svejda-Groh as Contini’s acting protégée, Claudia, works beautifully with one of the more complex roles in the show. Vocally, the cast is incredibly strong, which partially makes up for the two-dimensional acting. The ensemble numbers and the harmonies are all beautifully executed and are so entertaining that it is at times possible to forget some of the show’s obvious flaws. Ultimately, by the time the show ended, I was willing to forgive it on some counts and able to enjoy the production’s strengths as well as the strength of the material itself.

Overall, the strong material cannot save this misguided production of Nine. While it is at times entertaining, the flash-without-substance style of acting that dominates the show serves as its true downfall and can bias any audience member against Yeston’s original work, which so beautifully explores the sources of art, relationships, and love. In truth, your time is better spent listening to the show’s cast recording than making the long trek to the north side.