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Halfway through “Nine,” Arthur L. Kopit ’59 and Maury Yeston’s 1982 adaptation of Fredrico Fellini’s film “8½,” I had to face the truth: This was not a sexy musical.
There had been the initial promise of sexy. The cast of “Nine” is composed almost entirely of women. Frequent dance numbers take their cue from burlesque or Hollywood movie sets. In this production by the SpeakEasy Stage Company, which runs through February 20th at the Boston Center for the Arts, several scenes feature ladies banging tambourines on their bosoms. But while “Nine” may have the veneer of glitz and glamour, the luster can’t cover the musical’s setbacks. “Nine” is a misguided adaptation, and one that runs on shallow ideas about women and relationships. Even the extravagant boas in Paul Daigneault’s production (and there are long, lush, red ones) don’t dress up the show’s dull foundations.
Guido Contini (Timothy John Smith) is in a bind. A once-successful filmmaker, he needs to write a new movie lest his career come to an end. On top of that, his marriage is falling apart. Luisa, his wife, (Aimee Doherty) can no longer stand his infidelity with his mistress Carla (McCaela Donovan) or his infatuation with a French starlet, Claudia (Jennifer Ellis). When Guido goes to a Venetian spa in search of some rest, he finds himself overcome with anxiety about the women in his life.
Taking its cue from the original film, which flits between the director’s time at the spa and dream sequences, “Nine” moves in and out of Guido’s memories. At a parochial school, he was taught that all women were “whores or wives.” An old woman of loose morals corrupted the boy by teaching him how to seduce the female sex. These flashbacks serve as heavy-handed explanations for Guido’s midlife crisis. No wonder that his current predicament is: “One woman is not enough!”
Guido’s female relations—wife, mistress, mother, colleagues—undertake similar psychoanalyzing about the man. Unfortunately, they have little room for expression. “Nine” suffers at moments of terrible script writing, and the lyrics of the numbers for women are particularly thin. Many of the play’s female monologues vacillate between self-pity and campy raunch. It’s hard to imagine an actress could make lines like “Be Italian / You rapscallion” stand for some piece of women’s wisdom.
This production does not do much to overcome the script’s shortcomings. Paul Daigneault’s direction has his actors speaking in cheesy fake Italian accents, then slipping into American intonations whenever they break out in song. The resulting back and forth, combined with the cast’s exaggerated “Italian” hand gestures, makes it even more difficult to take Guido’s existential drama with any sort of sympathy. We may be watching a man’s life in upheaval, but the staging is more often reminiscent of a lavish pasta commercial.
This would be the foundation for a great farce, were it not that “Nine” takes itself extremely seriously. Maury Yetson, the play’s composer, has said that he wished to fill in female characters that Fellini’s movie leave in the dark by illustrating the “inner workings” of the women around Guido. And Daigneault chose the show, he writes, to bring together Boston’s female talent in one play. True, the fifteen female cast members have wide range of vocal expression. As Luisa, Doherty shows considerable poise, and her voice is strong and expressive. Some of the younger actresses, like Celia Hottenstein and Holly King, display commanding stage presence. But the female parts are so flimsy—and so emotionally empty—that one wonders what they are really meant to showcase.
Hopefully, these actresses can find themselves in roles more deserving than the weak ones “Nine” offers. In the meantime, for a subtle, intelligent look at the same issues—watch 8 ½ instead.
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