Forty and Nine – a State of Mind

By Ande Jacobson

City Lights Theater Company has a reputation for presenting edgy and provocative works, and its current production of “Nine” is no exception. Debuting in 1982 and winning five Tony Awards that year, “Nine” is a musical extravaganza, full of life, color, and romantic fantasy based on Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film, “8 1/2”, with a book by Arthur Kopit and music by Maury Yeston.

The story follows Italian film director Guido Contini (played by Tim Reynolds) through a particularly difficult period of his life. Having signed a contract to shoot a new film and just turned forty, he’s facing a mid-life crisis of cinematic proportions driven in part by his wife Luisa (played by Aoife Stone) who is threatening to leave him. Adding to his troubles, he has no ideas for a script to use for his new movie, and the production date is close at hand. As the story progresses, we find Guido’s creative life and his real life indistinguishably intertwined. In the end, Guido manages to solve the film problem, although his life solution is subject to interpretation.

The opening sequence sets the tone for the entire show and begins with Guido and Luisa entering from stage left. Luisa is talking to Guido, but Guido’s mind is clearly not focused on anything she is saying. As Guido stares off into space, others enter simultaneously talking to him, all women from his past and present. Luisa sees none of this, but in the rising cacophony, Guido senses his control floating away, and he cuts them off.

As they stand silenced, Guido, still having not spoken a word himself, raises a baton and begins conducting the Overture which is both played by the orchestra and sung by the company with a wordless vocal, rich in harmony and texture. The Overture is actually written in 2, but Reynolds conducts it in 4, his pattern breaking from the traditional and instead forming a solid cross, foreshadowing Guido’s link to the church.

Reynolds fully immerses himself in his character and makes the audience feel Guido’s pain. He commands the stage and his songs soar, even when singing with the full ensemble as he does in “Guido’s Song” and the “Grand Canal” sequence. While his Italian accent is fitting during the book scenes, it tends to disappear during some of his songs.

Stone fits Luisa well from an appearance and acting perspective, and her stage chemistry with Reynolds is believable. Her solo vocals, however, are weaker than her character would suggest.

Guido’s younger self is played by Nicolas Sancen with the requisite boyish charm required by the character, playfully popping up in Guido’s fantasies. Unfortunately, given Sancen is five years older than his character’s target age of nine, he’s almost as tall as Reynolds and has a lower vocal range, both of which add some unintended subtext to the story. His vocals sometimes miss on pitch, and he sings portions of some numbers an octave lower than scored inverting some of the harmonies.

Robyn Winslow’s Our Lady of the Spa is a mistress of ceremonies in the forefront of all of the activities at the spa. She and Reynolds have some amusing exchanges when she delivers messages Guido really doesn’t want to hear.

Ruth E. Stein’s portrayal of Guido’s mother is solid and is at times very amusing. She and Reynolds have a particularly touching, yet humorous scene late in Act 2 as Guido tries desperately to make sense of the mess that is his life.

Molly Thornton plays Guido’s producer Liliane La Fleur mostly for an imposing, yet comedic effect as seen in her “Folies Bergeres” where she demands that Guido direct a musical. While ostensibly French, Thornton sounds more German in her book scenes, which only adds to her authoritarian demands. To add even more, she brings along her mysterious accomplice, Lina Darling played by Elizabeth Curtis. Curtis doesn’t say much, but as the enforcer, she has a threatening presence.

Film critic Stephanie Russo is ably played by Patty Reinhart. A woman of many talents, Reinhart is also the Italian Dialect Coach for the production.

Mama Maddelena, the chief spa chambermaid, is played with flair by Karyn Rondeau. While maintaining order among the chambermaids, she also has occasion to accost Guido, though he welcomes the “attack”.

Sarraghina, the prostitute who gives Guido his first lesson in love at a tender age, is played convincingly by Kereli Dawn Sengstack. Her lead on “Be Italian” is evocative and powerful as she leads the ladies chorus with Young Guido in tow in the raucous number “on the beach.”

Others Guido has loved are Claudia Nardi, Guido’s protégé’ and muse played by Kristin Brownstone, and his current mistress, Carla Albanese played by Elizabeth Santana. Brownstone’s duets with Reynolds in “A Man Like You” and “Unusual Way” at the top of Act 2 are particularly well done, and Santana’s “A Call From the Vatican” in the middle of Act 1 is both suggestive and powerful.

The remaining ensemble members are strong. While not overly complex, the dances are well executed and synchronized. The ensemble vocals reach operatic proportions at times, and the Overture is particularly well done amidst the initial fantasy sequence.

Ron Gasparinetti’s set is sparse, and adds a degree of spaciousness to the intimate City Lights’ performance space. Center stage is empty, save for a bed, initially covered by a sheet. Scaffolding stands both stage right and stage left, reminiscent of a movie set. Upstage stands a set of two-story arches, with a platform connecting circular staircases on both ends. Around the front boundary of the stage is a thin raised walkway. A light board main sits downstage, adjacent to the stage right scaffolding and Guido uses this at the start of many of the scenes. Unfortunately, when the lever is reset during a couple of blackouts for the start of the next scene, the slight ratchet sound is momentarily distracting.

Musical Director Jean Narunsky and fellow keyboardist Samuel Cisneros re-orchestrated the 25-part score down to an instrumental trio consisting of two keyboards and one violin to fit into a relatively small space under the set. The accomplished musicians balance nicely so that even though the cast is not miked, everyone is heard, and even those audience members with sensitive hearing will not be uncomfortable. For the musical purist on the other hand, while synthesized keyboards and strings tend to blend well overall, particularly with an acoustic violin on top, there are times when the synthesized brass and woodwind sounds are ill-suited.

Jeffrey Bracco’s direction and Shannon Stowe’s choreography complement each other well. While the Broadway staging utilized a four tier arrangement, the two story approach at City Lights still allows for the action to come from multiple levels (the stairs on either side of the archway set are fully usable), still allowing cast members to observe various “home” positions. Leveraging Brendan Bartholomew’s lighting design, Bracco’s use of freeze frames and spots to highlight fits of fantasy are very effective allowing the audience to embrace Guido’s imagination while still following the progression of the “real” story.

While not appropriate for very young children, “Nine” is worth seeing and continues at the City Lights Theater Company Thursdays – Sundays through 28 August. Please see their website at: http://www.cltc.org or call 408-295-4200 for more information.

Photo Credit: Shannon Stowe

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