Opera House Theatre Co. brings the Tony Award winning musical “Nine,” back to the main stage of Thailian Hall. Directed by Ray Kennedy the script is a sort of stage musical adaptation of Federico Fellini’s famous film “8 ½.” Incredibly complex, “8 ½” as a stage incarnation requires a lot of smoothing out of the story, beginning with Mario Fratti translating and adapting the script from Italian. Maury Yeston took on the monumental task of writing music and lyrics, and Arthur Kopit put together a book that creates a more cohesive story line for a theatre-oriented audience than a film-going one.
THE MAN AND HIS CHORUS OF LADIES: Robin Dale Robertson plays Guido in ‘Nine,’ about a struggling filmmaker who has quite the wandering eye yet struggles with a muse. Courtesy photo
Robin Dale Robertson portrays Guido Contini, an aging Italian filmmaker in crisis. His wife, Luisa (Cindy Colucci), is threatening a possible divorce. He can’t seem to write a script for the film he is under contract to make and the producer, Liliane Le Fleur (Suellen Yates), is putting pressure on him in the form of threats from her enforcer (Tammy Sue Daniels). He’s got troubles with his mistress, Carla (Samantha Ray), and everywhere he goes, he is recognized and hounded by questions and demands. Frankly, it is more than one weak old man can take.
“Behind every great man, there is a great woman,” as the saying goes. In this case, we meet the assortment of women who make up Guido’s life from his wife and mistress, to his mother and every conceivable relationship in between. For his wife and mistress, the two best songs that introduce both relationships to Guido are early in the show. Luisa attempts to explain how reports are hell bent on asking her nasty, accusatory questions about her marriage (“My Husband Makes Movies”). It’s not a real world he lives in or creates for others.
Cindy Colucci gives us an aging actress who has spent her adult life manipulating the press to her own ends and to protect her private life. She somehow beautifully combines frustration, longing, humor, and lingering desire in a song that encapsulates so much of the unique relationship they have shared. However, don’t be fooled, Guido is not ever going to be faithful to one woman—and it is really the game, more than anything else that seems to attract him.
In “A Call From the Vatican,” Carla and Guido share a truly erotic phone call under the guise he is speaking to the Vatican, with Luisa sitting in the same room. Well, it is a transcendental experience, of sorts. Samantha Ray offers a startling rendition of the dumb innocence that men who are insecure in their own intelligence and accomplishments find appealing. She combines it with a willingness to do anything or be anyone Guido wants, provided he pays attention to her. It’s not hard to see why he like her as a mistress. Her voice is unstoppable and her body is infinitely entertaining. Costume designer Juli Harvey put her in a one piece body suit, and though it actually conceals, it gives the illusion it reveals as much as the imagination can conceive.
Anyone familiar with Fellini’s work knows the whimsical otherworldly nature that runs through his films. Both Act I and Act II find ways to incorporate the element. In Act I, “Folies Bergeres” was possibly my favorite song. It is the demand by Guido’s producer, La Fleur, that he write and direct a musical, which is what she has him under contract to do. This point of contention erupts into La Fleur momentarily turning back the clock and recreating the “Folies Bergeres” in the midst of the spa at which Guido has taken refuge. Yates is just marvelous to watch in the role. She offers elegance, grace, charm and escapism. Set against Act Two’s homage to Fellini’s “Cassanova” (a film he would make in 1976 that Dino DeLaurentiis, who built our movie studio on 23rd Street, was the original producer for) both embody the creative license and insanity per the process of making art—and that’s really the thrust of “8 ½.”
Robertson’s Guido is funny, warm and as self-absorbed as a movie mogul can be. It goes without saying he sings beautifully, but the score really doesn’t give him an opportunity to show off the range he has as a singer and performer. Robertson has a voice that can soar and take the audience on an emotional journey—so, when given a chance, he will break a room full of hearts. I always look forward to his performances. It’s weird to see him in this role. He plays it beautifully, but Guido has fallen from great heights to mediocrity. Robertson gives us a man lurching from denial to appeasement and then to bargaining when confronted with this information. Aging is not for the weak, as Robertson reminds, especially when he talks to his younger self (Wyatt Unrue).
On the one hand it appears Guido is the lead, and indeed, the action does center around him. The choice of the actor to interpret Guido determines the course of the show, but in reality, it is the chorus of women who are central figures of the show. Individually, they have varying importance in his life: His mother (Debra Gillingham) is of greater importance and reverence for him than the German women who vacation at the spa (Penelope Grover, Roxann Hubbard, Linda Carlise Markas, Denyse McDonnell). Still, the Germans make it into his film and become both inspiration and diversion.
Kennedy has stacked the stage with talent. Shannon Playl as Claudia, Guido’s former muse, Denise Bass as the taunting critic, and a chorus of women: Kaitlin Baden, Coleman Cox, Emily Graham, Sydney Marie Jones, Caitlyn Kumpula, Katie Mahn, Jenny McKinnon Wright, Elisa Eklof Smith, Sarah Holcomb, and Jordan Davis. The impact of their beautiful voices and the stunning choreography is everything I want from big production numbers in musical theatre. It is sexy, loving, vast, and visually so much more than the story. That the creative team and performers give vitality and palpability to it is truly a compliment to them all. It’s a grand stage musical to see.