Monday, January 31, 2011


Timothy John Smith and the women of Nine.
I've only seen Nine once before, in a mediocre community production many years ago; I didn't care for it much back then.  But after seeing SpeakEasy Stage's sleek new version (at the BCA through Feb. 20), I have to admit I've changed my mind. Now I hate it.

Perhaps it takes a great production to confirm one's suspicions that a particular play or musical is mediocre (in talented hands there's no place for the material to hide).  But I really should have been sure of the truth about Nine long ago - and anyone who admires its inspiration, Frederico Fellini's psychological fantasy , should be warned to keep a safe distance.  For the musical is transparently designed for people who either haven't seen, or haven't understood, that iconic Italian director's seminal 1963 masterpiece.

If that's the case for you, then you may enjoy the show, for it's a standard-issue set of late-Broadway gay-Jewish conventions: serviceable songs and predictable "adult" jokes arrayed in something like a revue.  That's right - it's a gay, Jewish revue about a straight Italian Catholic.  Go figure. But at least it showcases a bevy of Boston's loveliest and most talented female performers, each of whom gets one of those serviceable songs (or two), and knows how to sell it.

Therefore it's easy on the eyes, and the ears - unless, of course, you can feel the shadow of its source looming over it.  Because then the whole thing seems like a travesty.  I'll admit Nine does hold some interest for me, but only in a single way - as was the case with The Blue Flower before it, you can tell its creators (Arthur Kopit, Maury Yeston, and director Tommy Tune) labored under the delusion they were creating an homage.  Yes - they "loved" , too - and that's what's a little scary, frankly; for how could they "love" something they seem to want to destroy?  (Although the old saw that love is blind may apply doubly to the world of art, I suppose.)

Aimee Doherty in Nine.
To those behind the pointlessly-retitled Nine, it seems  may have been a grand meta-cinematic experiment (it's a film about its own making, or rather un-making), an investigation of one director's creative block, and a stunning visual fantasy (see clip below if you doubt me).  And it may have even featured a ravishing score by the great Nino Rota. But somehow it still demanded improvement.  Its creator, Fellini - or his alter ego, "Guido" - may, at the end of his psychological carnival, have told the many women in his life (and beyond them, the vast, needy audience they represented) that they must "take me as I am, if you want me."  But Kopit and Weston have other ideas - in their eyes, what Guido needs is to grow up.

It doesn't seem to have occurred to them that if Fellini grew up, then there'd be no more Fellini.  And therefore no more movies like Nights of Cabiria or La Dolce Vita.  Perhaps that's why their advice is precisely the prescription the director didn't take in the original film.  But then Kopit and Weston don't really have that much interest in the original film. They drop almost everything they can't approximate with an all-female cast (their concept is basically a replay of the notorious "Guido's Harem" scene, below); thus the death of Guido's father, his relationship to the Church, and even the wild climax at the set of the movie he's "supposed" to make (tellingly, it's a launching pad for a spaceship that hasn't been built) never make an appearance in Nine.  And more's the pity, because without them, the musical has no depth or texture.

It doesn't even have any really good songs.  From Nino Rota to Maury Weston - ah, what a falling off was there!  I still remember Rota's melodies, from years ago - but while Weston quotes a few of them here and there, strangely, it does him little good; I can' remember his score even though I only heard it about a week ago.

The director who wouldn't grow up takes a whip to the women who want him to in 8½.

Oh, well, the good news is that at least Nine means a lot of Boston's best actresses have work, and it was great to see local stars Aimee Doherty (above left), Cheryl McMahon, and Kerry A. Dowling carry on at their usual high level, even with lesser material.  Meanwhile comedienne Maureen Keiller got to shine in the kind of number we haven't seen her in for ages ("Folies Bergere," seemingly borrowed from La Cage, which I think premiered the same year).  It was also great to welcome back the gorgeous Jennifer Ellis - where has she been? - as well as watch newcomer Shana Dirik dazzle the  SpeakEasy crowd the way she's been dazzling the Metro Stage crowd for years.  There was also a very poised turn by Erik March as the younger Guido, and nice moments around the edges by Santina Umbach, Amy Jackson, and McCaela Donovan.

Alas, Donovan sort of typified what was wrong with the production's vision of Fellini's women, though - she was far too svelte, and not nearly zaftig enough (and zaftigity is important to Fellini). And for once, I was a bit disappointed in the reliable Timothy John Smith's Guido - he channeled little of the suave urbanity the part should have. But then the role had been shorn of its real reason for being - Guido's writer's block (in Nine you can barely tell he's desperately trying to find inspiration for a film).  And while the production's design was sumptuous, its visual cues seemed slightly wrong - the dark set suggested not at all the glamorously arid modernity of the film, and SeĆ”ghan McKay's projections - amazing as they were - likewise only rarely quoted the director's visual language. Meanwhile Charles Schoonmaker's striking costumes didn't really conjure the fashion atmosphere of the early 60's (which Fellini's movies helped define). But maybe all these talented designers had simply picked up earlier than I did on the fact that Nine ain't . Not by half.

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