“My husband makes movies; to make them he lives a kind of dream, in which his actions aren’t always what they seem. He may be on to some unique, ‘romantic’ theme…” sings “Luisa Contini” wife of World-renowned Italian Director, “Guido Contini” in “Nine”. Featuring a book by Arthur Kopit with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, this musical reworking of Federico Fellini’s Academy Award Winning surreal and satiric cinematic masterpiece “8 ½ ” is the latest offering at the landmark “Gem Theatre” in Garden Grove California. Produced by “One More Productions” and Directed by OMP Co-Founder Damien Lorton (who also serves as Musical Director,) with Choreography by Heather Holt-Smith, the production marks 15 years of presenting melody-filled treasures within the “Gem’s” intimate production space. On opening night, Lorton beamed as he observed that they were celebrating this remarkable occasion by bestowing fifteen years of the company’s most accomplished “Leading Ladies”—all in this one luminous show!
“Nine” is a complex, highly-stylized musical dramedy, and style is precisely what the folks at “One More Productions” have given it in spades. Yeston’s songs are some of the smartest and very best written for the musical stage in decades–each couching some pithy statement on the human condition as reflected through these fascinating, if fallible characters. They include “Guido’s Song”, “In A Very Unusual Way”, “My Husband Makes Movies” and “A Call From The Vatican”. At times, (such as in the midst of ‘Guido’s’ shooting his movie) the libretto essentially plays like a lyrical symphony, with just about all of the last twenty minutes of the second act being completely ‘sung through’. Set (mostly) in Venice, Italy circa 1965, the basic (somewhat Autobiographical) story follows the life of that same world-famous Italian Film-Auteur as he furiously prepares his latest picture while recalling (and in some cases, balancing) the numerous women in his life.
As the houselights dim, the toll of a bell—obstinate (and even a little ominous sounding,) acoustically ‘initiates’ the goings-on just in advance of the ladies’ (whom we’ll come to know,) mass ascension on to the stage—every one of them clothed in the chic-est fashions of the period. Among them are “Luisa”, Contini’s exhaustively patient (albeit increasingly alienated,) wife—herself a former Actress; “Carla” his voluptuous young Mistress, and “Claudia”—set to be the “Star” of his upcoming film (who’s also Contini’s private “Muse”.) Besides exhibiting some outstanding group harmony, this opening ‘parade of femininity’ functions as a kind of vocal overture and prologue to all which follows. Next, we actually meet “Guido”—a ‘Mature’ Italian Director (or so he describes himself,) as he attempts to ‘shore-up’ his stressed marriage by taking his wife to a luxurious Spa in Venice called “La Fontana De Luna” (The Fountain Of The Moon.) As frustrating luck would have it though, his Mistress also opts to join them—as does his overbearing Producer—an erstwhile Headliner at the “Folies Bergeres” in Paris named “Liliane Le Fleur”. Before long, even “Mama Maddelena”–the resort’s harried and bemused manager isn’t immune to his attentions.
Trouble is, Contini is at a loss as to what he wants this new movie to be—not too promising a situation considering that, after series of recent box-office failures, he’s slowly drifting towards a nervous breakdown, indicated by the way dreams, fantasies, memory, and waking-reality often blend seamlessly and without warning, which act as ‘fuel’ for the massive musical episodes. As his sanity disintegrates, he takes refuge more and more into nostalgic reverie, eventually focusing on one peculiar pseudo-provocative encounter (more tame than tawdry) he once had with an earthy Prostitute named “Sarraghina”, who advised him the only way to regard any woman (let alone love her,) is to “Be Italian” (This not coincidentally, occurring when he was at the formative age of nine!) Once Contini pulls it together long enough to at last get onto mulling over what he wants his movie to be (–he settles on the life-story of notorious philanderer “Casanova”,) in a flurry of mock pageantry (on top of still more A-Plus harmonizing from the ensemble,) he compares life (and cinema) to a “Grand Canal”: “This is the Grand Canal—its resemblance to life is not obscure; it is filled with the milk of human kindness, in spite of the fact it’s really a sewer!” Shortly thereafter, they again gather to strut before the footlights with “Every Girl In Venice” as our hero literally ‘casts’ everyone staying at the hotel to be a part of his ‘movie’: “Every girl in Venice is in love with Casanova—as long as Casanova pays the price!” they all portentously carol forth. The finale, while not your traditional cut-and-dried “Happy” ending, is more ‘optimistic” and even surprisingly life affirming.
Admittedly, it’s something of a conundrum trying to determine whose performance was ‘better’ or more ‘impactful’—they’re all uniformly exceptional in various ways. In fact, arguably the most salient aspect to the entire production is all the truly remarkable examples of acting, singing and stagecraft to be experienced in it! As “Maestro Guido Contini”, Ian Michaels invests his interpretation with an off-handed brand of boyish charm and a disarming and natural parlance. His introductory descant, simply called “Guido’s Song” (–one of several terrific tuneful outings he’s granted,) effectively acquaints us with “Contini” the man, along with his overall ‘philosophy of life’: “I am lusting for more; Should I settle for less? I ask you, what’s a good thing for, if not for taking it to excess?! One limitation I dearly regret–there’s only one of me that I’ve ever met!” As much a ‘sung soliloquy’ as a full-on serenade–and written in a lively patter-song format, he meritoriously navigates the tricky, tongue-twisting lyrics while investing into them the strong and eloquent expressiveness they require. Additionally, he shrewdly elects to ‘underplay’ most of his phrasing until the ride-out, at which time he absolutely cuts loose and demonstrates just how vigorous a voice he has! This he follows up with “Only With You”—a romantic ode originally sung to his wife, but which quickly winds up being warbled to all the women who engage his mind (–and lower regions) as they meander across the stage: “Small wonder it seems that my life’s made of dreams and wishes that never come true; I wouldn’t be lonely if I could be only with you,” he croons to each one. Subsequently, his ‘dialogue’ with the area’s resident “Cardinal”, wherein he ‘acts out’ both parts of the conversation (as “Guido” seeks out spiritual intervention to help him through his creative and existential crisis,) is a clever and funny bit of stage business; then, right before the act-break, he tenders further more proof of his virtuosic vocal-chops by leading the somber and reflective “The Bells Of St. Sebastian”. Repeating this sonant feat again after intermission, he shades even more rapid-fire lyrics when launching “Every Girl In Venice” with comparable vigor and resonance. Meanwhile, taking on a far more significant role on stage than was seen in the 2009 film adaptation, Eliot DeLucia turns in some equally laudable work as “Contini’s” ‘younger self’, “Little Guido”. Here, the nine-year-old “Guido” even imparts a vital message to his older counterpart at a climactic moment when “Guido” (the elder) needs it most, in the form of his 11th hour refrain, “Getting Tall’ (whereupon the boy advises the alleged “grown-up” he’ll become of the need to “act his middle-age”.) Solidly sung and enacted by this talented fledgling performer, he cautions: “You will have NO ONE if you try to have them all.”
As “Guido’s” wife “Luisa Contini”, Nicole Cassesso’s portrayal favors a distinctly ‘feistier’ touch to this tired Italian wife. Ever mindful of the expectations and concessions she’s been brought up with regarding what a “dutiful” wife is, Cassesso’s approach also sees to it that she’s nobody’s victim either! This makes her much more of an active participant in…well, her life, than may have been seen in other depictions. Either way, count it an unequivocal breath of fresh air here! Her initial ballad, “My Husband Makes Movies” is itself a potent soliloquy which in her charge, (while introspective enough) is more forthright in its conveyance, giving us insight into who she is and what she has to (–and has already) put up with from her mercurial spouse. Before the final curtain, her paean to letting go, “Be On Your Own” is also powerfully and acutely driven home when this marginalized wife finally has had her fill of her husband’s self-centered and manipulative hijinks: “No need to carry on this masquerade, when all that we’re about has begun to fade; I set you free! There’s not much longer to complain, I’ll soon relieve you of your pain…if that is all you wish, then I agree…” she laments, and her well-earned misery is palpable. This is categorically one of Cassesso’s purest and most affecting moments on “The Gem” stage to date!
Likewise, Brittany Gerardo couldn’t be a step, note, phrase or refrain more brilliant as “Carla Albanese”, Guido’s Mistress: “Carla, light of my loins,” Guido purrs to her upon their meeting (when he’s supposed to be with his wife!) Full-voiced (and even fuller bodied,) her euphemistically titled “A Call From The Vatican” is thoroughly stunning (but you get an idea as to why CBS banned the number from their Tony Award” telecast in 1982!) Herewith, Gerardo goes large and goes strong–giving it a positively spectacular rendition (–and did we mention how opulent her vocal abilities are? If so, it bears repeating: WOW!) At the show’s climax, she also strokes the heart-strings all over again with “Simple”, unveiling a woman in as much torment as all the others in “Guido’s” thrall, as “Carla” having also had enough, bids ‘Arrivederci’ to the man she thought she loved—and whom she thought ‘loved’ her: “Simple are the ways we come apart. Simple as a babe is new…simple as the sun, and the moon, and the stars in the sky…Simple is the way we say Good-bye.” Every bit as captivating is Adriana Sanchez as “Sarraghina” –the Prostitute “Little Guido” once guilelessly paid to reveal to him the secret of being a true ‘Ladies Man’. Sanchez’s turn is roundly ribald making her first, fundamental appearance disguised as a Nun before doffing the ‘habit and coronet’ to expose a crimson baby-doll nightie under a see-through sculpted black-lace robe. Confirming once again just how dynamic a voice she herself has, her one key number (perhaps the shows’ best-known) is the lavishly lusty, “Be Italian”. Dramatically, this one has a greater build-up than many already familiar with the arrangement might be aware of, coming complete with an affixed ‘prelude’ titled “Ti Voglio Bene”. In it, she ‘instructs the lad on the sure-fire method for being successful in love: “If you really want to make a woman happy, you rely on what you were born with—because it is in your blood!” Then, taking up a tambourine, she goes into a spirited ‘Tarantella’ as the stage is bathed in sultry red (–by the time she’s through, go ahead–just try to keep your toes from tapping!) Erica Baldwin also puts her prodigious performing skills into playing “Claudia Nardi” –the celebrated “Movie Star” and Guido’s personal “Muse”. Baldwin too, adds to her substantial list of distinguished roles, and her general attitude is less aloof and much more ‘in depth’ and honest, than may similarly have been seen in previous versions. Although “Claudia” is pretty much kept in the background in the first act (only materializing when mentioned here and there,) Act Two opens with “Guido” finally being confronted by his ‘proposed’ film’s’ “Leading Lady” who finds his constant expectations of her, not merely as an Actress, but as his professed ‘source of inspiration’, utterly exhausting: “Guido, you have invented me—no such person exists!” she contends. Worn down from trying to reason with him to no avail, she finally confesses that the only reason she came to Italy was because “Luisa” had phoned her in Paris, begging her to meet with him. This leads to one of the score’s most haunting inclusions called “In A Very Unusual Way” which, given the fervently raw and intensely poignant emotions Baldwin instills into it, they wouldn’t be too off base were the song rechristened “In A Very Incredible Way”! Thereupon, at last declaring her overwhelming—but ultimately hopeless–feelings for Guido, “Claudia” attempts to say ‘goodbye’ to him for good.
Nickie Gentry is also patently wonderful as “Guido’s Mother”. In search of divine guidance, instead he receives a visit from his beloved Mother’s spirit, whose awe-inspiring titular ‘aria’, “Nine” (as he recollects his ninth Birthday,) is sublime and operatic—to say nothing of a trace melancholy: “Nine, Guido! Happy Birthday to you. Nine, Guido! So much to do! Time to start out on your own, open up to a brand-new world; Time to leave early dreams and live them instead…” Stunningly intoned, it’s even difficult to describe the unadulterated thrill one is bound to get upon hearing Gentry’s magnificent and eloquent delivery of it. At the other end of the spectrum (although just as impressive,) is Beth Hansen as Contini’s overbearing and contentious (not to mention more than slightly “Sapphic”,) Producer, “Liliane Le Fleur”. Giving us something akin to an aging “Liza Minelli”–on acid, in this role, Hansen (a formidable—and long proven—Artist with “One More Productions”) claims yet another total Victory on the “Gem Stage”! (Indeed, every second she’s on stage here, the stage is all the more impressive for it!) Boasting a flawless French Accent, “Folies Bergeres”–her primary moment in the spot-light, is jaunty and electrifying as she ‘belts it out’ to the back row of the auditorium, easily making this one the out-right “Show Stopper” in an evening full of them. Tres Magnifique! (Immediately afterward, “Madame Le Fleur’ demands that Guido’s impending project be, what else? A Musical!)
As her cohort (and literary ‘Hit Girl”,) Megan Walker also furnishes some creditable support as “Stephanie Necrophorus”–an acerbic, (and to some extent a bit malevolent,) Movie Critic, who (unlike Kate Hudson’s sensual—and sympathetic—re-envisioning in the big-screen adaptation,) detests “Senior Contini” (whom she calls “The King Of Mediocrities”,) much less any of his work! Openly out to take “Guido” down–one bad review at a time, her sarcastic counter-obligado verses in the course of “Folies Bergeres” are a fast-talking bit of linguistic dexterity, assisting the number to standout delectably. Later, she also proves how capable she can finesse these often break-neck verbal onslaughts which Yeston’s lyrics are so rife with, during her part in “The Grand Canal” (as she swiftly—and in no uncertain terms–lists everything that are wrong with Contini and his films!) Kelli Hines is also remarkable in a supporting role, as ‘Spa Manager’, “Mama Maddelena”. Once all the principal figures in this tale converge on her establishment, Hines does a superlative job leading the manic “Germans At The Spa” –as her all-female staff decry the influx of ‘foreigners from across the Alps’ to their cozy little ‘Pensione’. Coursing with frenetic energy, the riveting melodic effect is like that of a vocal carousel, and it too is most decidedly a crowd-pleaser early-on. In Act Two, as Contini hastily ‘improvises’ his film about “Casanova”, he casts “Maddelena” as “Marie”—the famed womanizer’s seduction-du-jour, and her flirty little ‘Minuet’ with the Director as part of “Every Girl In Venice” serves as the perfect comedic ‘punctuation’ for the whole number.
The versatile choreography by Heather Holt-Smith takes on many forms—often in the most understated or unexpected ways. From the elegant promenade which opens the show, or the frisky kick-line at the height of “Folies Bergeres”, to the boisterous cavorting that’s infused into the extended ‘movie-making’ sequence (which connects “The Grand Canal” and “Every Girl In Venice”,) as well as the passionate one-woman “Tarantella” that’s such a huge part of “Be Italian”, each demonstrate that inventive choreography needn’t always involve fancy dancing! As for the set design—a shared effort by Wally Huntoon, Damien Lorton, Nicole Cassesso and Harold Mendenhall, their concept leans toward ultramodern contours consisting of a series of receding ‘screens’ with the on-stage Orchestra separated into two sections and seated on either side of a central ramp. Deceptively simple perhaps, but this aids immeasurably in generating the proper environment for everything we’ll be witnessing. Serious props also go out to Ramzi Jneid who has consummately outdone himself with his Cosmopolitan 1960’s era Costume designs. Save for “Sarraghina’s” rakishly red undergarments and a few pale pink feathered head-pieces spied betwixt the flash and flair of “Folies Bergeres”, just about all the garments seen are done in sporty black and white, in an obvious ‘homage’ to the motion-picture classic and the musical’s source material, “8 ½”, (which itself was shot in Black and White.) By the same token, there’s the imaginative Lighting Design–also by Mendenhall, that bathes the players in the most fitting hue for whatever ‘emotion’ they’re singing about, while at times, also slyly reflecting on the action in its own right (E.G. the pinks and blues in the opening, which play up the differences between the sexes: Pink for the women, Blue for the men.) He also backs “Luisa’s” pensive “My Husband Makes Movies” with a sickly purple—a color notorious for being both regal–and funereal. Not at all to be overlooked either is Adrian Rangel-Sanchez who’s on-stage from beginning to end as the Conductor tasked with overseeing the mellifluous (and hard-working) 10-piece orchestra, who are themselves on-stage and in full view throughout the duration of proceedings.
Bellissima! Having ‘officially ‘opened on Saturday April 27th, “Nine” will play through Sunday, May 19th, 2019 at “The Gem Theatre” located at 12852 Main St, in Garden Grove California. Showtimes are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM with Matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 PM. (Please Note: There will be no Saturday Matinee on May 18th.) Tickets may be obtained either by logging onto: www.onemoreproductions.com or by calling the Box-Office at: (714) 741-9550 X 221. Special discounts for Seniors (60 years and older), and Children (12 years old and under) are also available, as are discounted “Student Rush Tickets” for Thursday and Friday performances.
Production Stills By Ron Lyon, Courtesy of Ron Lyon, Shoko Araki And “One More Productions” (www.onemoreproductions.com) Special Thanks To Shoko Araki, Damien Lorton, Heather Holt-Smith, Nicole Cassesso, And To The Cast & Crew Of One More Productions’ 2019 Production Of “NINE” For Making This Story Possible.