NINE Theatre ReviewWhen I was 14 Federico Fellini’s 8½ was my favorite movie. When Nine was on Broadway in the 1980s I didn’t see this Tony Award-winning musical version of 8½ starring Raul Julia, adapted by bookwriter Arthur Kopit, with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. I did, however, watch the 1999 motion picture permutation of the content Fellini originated, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard and not even the presence of Sophia Loren swayed me to like it. Despite the fact that I’m a stickler for originality and have a chip on my shoulder against the endless recycling of material in order to capitalize on pre-established brand names (don’t get me started, Superman!), I actually quite enjoyed DOMA Theatre Co.’s iteration of Nine at the MET Theatre.
Fellini’s semi-autobiographical 1963 film is one of the best meditations on moviemaking ever, along with Buster Keaton’s 1928 The Cameraman, Dziga Vertov’s 1929 The Man With the Movie Camera, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 Contempt and Francois Truffaut’s 1973 Day for Night (which airs on my favorite channel, TCM, on July 26). 8½ may also be the cinema’s most uproarious mid-life crisis, as its lead character nears — horrors! — 40.
Nine’s story and form, which weaves in and out of a dream state and waking reality, is largely faithful to that of 8½: Guido Contini (David Michael Treviño) is a film director experiencing a crisis in creativity and in his personal life. Guido (whose last name in 8½ was Anselmi and was played by Fellini’s onscreen alter ego, Marcello Mastroianni) has run out of ideas for his next movie project, and is being harassed by his producer Liliane LaFleur (smartly depicted by Emilia Sotelo as the studio exec you love to hate) and harangued by Stephanie Necrophorus (Andrea Arvanigian), an aptly named deadly critic wielding the sharpest hatchet this side of John Simon.
If poor Guido is being hounded by commercial and critical pressures, he is being haunted by self-doubts and memories of his mother (Michelle Holmes) and the moronic medieval church that repressed him when he attended parochial school. Perhaps to compensate for this sexual stifling Guido is embroiled in a number of relationships. His troubled marriage to Luisa (Melissa Anjose) is falling apart, as Guido pursues his sensuous mistress, Carla Albanese (the appropriately named Lovlee Carroll).
As if Guido’s clashes with the suits and his suitors isn’t enough, he also has trouble with the actress Claudia (portrayed by Claudia Cardinale in 8½), whom he idealizes. Here, the creative artist clashes with the performing artist, adding to Guido’s woes. And now a word about Toni Smith, who hobbled about the stage as Claudia with what seemed to be a rhinestone-studded cane and in a cast: According to choreographer Rae Toledo Ms. Smith broke her ankle during rehearsals shortly before Nine opened, but in that great “the show must go on!” tradition, she still managed to deliver a moving performance as the woman who no longer wishes to be confined to playing the role of confused Guido’s muse. (There’s no business like show business!)
Liza Baron is a hoot as the rooting tooting Saraghina, one of those over-sexualized zaftig women who beguile and entice young boys in Fellini flicks from 8½ to 1973’s disarmingly charming Amarcord, surely erotic vestiges of Federico’s feverish imagination and childhood memories of Rimini. Donovan Baise plays Little Guido, the director as a child, and the play suggests its title refers to grownup Guido being stuck in a state of arrested development, with a nine-year-old’s mentality. This is an interesting insight, but it bears pointing out that the title of Fellini’s original referred to the number of movies he had made up until that point (he counted shorts and co-directed works as “half” a credit).
Being a film/theater critic, I especially enjoyed Arvanigian’s portrayal of a Cahiers du Cinema critic who is in cahoots with producer LaFleur and hectors our man Guido. Her movie meddling reminded me of stories I’d read that alleged Pauline Kael, the well-known New Yorker magazine critic, sometimes tried to influence the filmmaking process. It was refreshing and amusing to watch Arvanigian’s send-up of reviewers and for the barbs to be aimed at those of us who so often hurl them ourselves at that brave band of performers and their bards. It was good fun to be, in turn, lampooned and harpooned by a member of the profession that is so often the victim of my critical brethren’s jabs and jibes.
As a critic, I am endlessly amused by reviews of my reviews, which usually take the form of occasional love letters and brickbats. To those I pan I’d remind you that onstage or onscreen you have already had your say, and as I am not your publicist I am under no obligation to ballyhoo, flatter or like you — I am merely obliged to my readers and publishers to call it as I see it to the best of my ability. And to those I praise, please spare me the thanks — I am merely a mirror, telling it like it is. And judging by Ms. Arvanigian’s droll, prickly performance, contrary to her playbill blurb, her “dreams” are no “crazier” than Guido’s, and I look forward to seeing you again when next you step in front of the footlights.
Making her DOMA return engagement, Rae Toledo — who designed the dancing for the company’s recent Dreamgirls production — choreographs Nine with a Bob Fosse vibe and verve. None of the music played by the seven piece band is, alas, derived from Nino Rota’s fab 8½ score, although the live music along with the dancing enlivens and enhances the play. Designer Amanda Lawson’s two-tier set cleverly expands the 99-seat playhouse’s diminutive space and exudes the ambiance of a spa, where much of the action takes place. Marco Gomez, who is DOMA’s top banana, deftly directs the rather large ensemble, with far too many players for me to single them all out, but it’s great to see a large cast on the boards.
However, I’d be remiss not to mention Treviño, who as stated plays the protagonist. Although Treviño does bear a vague resemblance to Mastroianni, he does not possess Marcello’s Continental charm and suave smoothness which made women want him and men want to be him. He comes across too wishy-washy in most scenes to have the commanding presence a maestro of movies requires, and his voice is likewise so-so, but no kewpie doll. The Texan also appears to my eye to be a bit too old for this age specific role which largely hinges on the panic of a man about to turn — shudders! — 40.
[PLOT SPOILER ALERT!] But my biggest disappointment in Nine is with its ending, which leaves Guido’s artistic and personal crises unresolved. Not so in 8½, dear reader: Guido may have needed a guide and been lost through much of the movie, but not our man Fellini, who wrought a masterpiece. In the grand finale, at the futuristic set of the sci-fi film Guido had been trying to shoot, he has an epiphany and overcomes his alienation in one of the most beautiful, poignant scenes in cinema history. Guido rises to the occasion, as an artist and husband. He poignantly confesses his deep abiding love to Luisa (Anouk Aimée) and directs a parade that becomes the most joyous dance of life this side of Henri Matisse or Ingmar Bergman.
Nevertheless, even though the Supreme Court has struck down DOMA, I still give a big thumbs up to this DOMA’s Nine, which I heartily enjoyed. The best thing about this musical is that during the 50th anniversary of Fellini’s peerless motion picture masterpiece, this play can serve as a launching pad for a new generation of viewers to revel in the movie maestro’s soulful, sensuous classic.Even without color and all of the musical’s songs, Fellini’s black and white vision, with its harem scene, Saraghina’s priceless rumba and so much more, remains an unforgettable sublimely cinematic experience. Go see this skillfully choreographed production of Nine — then watch 8½ and join in on the dance of life. Bellissimo!
DOMA Theatre Company’s Nine is being performed on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through August 18 at the MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90029. For more information: See www.domatheatre.com or call (323)802-4990.
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