Regional Reviews: St. Louis
There seems to be a lovely little joke hiding in plain sight, in the title of the 1963 classic film 8½, by writer/director Federico Fellini. For, if you turn the title numbers on their side, and accept them as pure symbology, they suddenly tell the story of a man who could go on for infinity, zooming around that figure "8"; on the "dividing line" between independence and coupling, represented by the "½". In this story, you're magically both. I had an amazing time watching the old movie over again.
Nineteen years later, in 1982, 8½ got a showbiz update: becoming Broadway's Nine. And don't ask me what that means, it took decades to figure that first one out. Nine won five Tony awards, including Best Musical, over the ferociously dazzling Dreamgirls. They're both so different, a choice would be impossible.
Now it's a spare but beautifully done stage musical revival in St. Louis, directed by New Line Theatre's brainiac founder Scott Miller and energetic co-director and choreographer Chris Kernan. As you'd expect from New Line, it's all lavishly sung, with a Cinemascopic eye for the period style, at the Marcelle Theatre. Sly and seductive, with all the psychological complexity you could ask for, this Nine is a lot more fun than I'd ever figured on.
So I couldn't help but wonder: what was it about this show that makes it so crazily good?
For the sake of American audiences, the movie's sexual sensibility has been turned on its head in this live musical version. In Fellini's imagistic film comedy, set mainly in a spa in Venice, most of the women come across as crazy juveniles, constantly demanding the attention of Guido Contini, a world-renowned filmmaker. But when these women have children of their own, the movie seems to suggest, they expel their madness out into the world in the form of offspring–freeing the young mothers to ascend to their superior selves after that.
In the 1982 stage musical, the highly admirable music and lyrics are by Maury Yeston, with a solidly very smart book by Arthur Kopit and Mario Fratti. And this time it's the women who are wise, instead of the men–or rather, the one man, who comes complete with a Sinatra slouch as played by the justly confident Cole Gutmann. But he's the childish one here.
Even with the gender power reversal, Nine works just as beautifully in the end, because this time, the women keep the main character on a different sort of dividing line, between his own man- and boy-hood. Mr. Gutmann has mastered new dimensions of awkwardness, even behind his insouciance. But he could probably use some gray tips and maybe a few tiny lines and crinkles to look right standing next to his excellent stage wife, elegant Lisa Karpowicz, as Louisa, armed with a wonderfully romantic voice, reaching out for him to keep up with the relationship.
And then there's a huge, highly talented chorus of women opposite Guido on stage, all clad fashionably in black: fourteen serious actresses playing sixteen challenging, zesty, and confrontational roles. Sarah Wilkinson is fully committed as the hyper-sexualized Carla, barging into Guido's rest and recovery at the spa. In act two, she manages a huge psychological turnaround, from comedy into darkness and despair, with the greatest of ease. Ann Hier Brown shows unexpected savoir faire as Guido's lucky charm, the reluctant movie star Claudia.
That darned Kimmie Kidd-Booker steals every scene she's in as Liliane, the intercontinental film producer, astonished to find she has no film to produce. And Stephanie Merritt nails down the strength and stability of the Italian matriarchy as Guido's mother. Sarah Lueken luxuriously prowls through the show's signature number, "Be Italian," with tremendous panache as Saraghina. She's backed-up by the chorus and all of their many giggle-inducing little tambourines.
Honestly, they have a slightly rough start before the show really takes off, before the songs become reliably interesting, three or four numbers into this two hour and fifteen minute meringue. The women are magnificent as well as highly musical, starting off under Guido's baton in a big vocalese number (which could have been about 90 seconds shorter, for my taste). Then, in fairly short order, it all runs just as smoothly on girl power, as it did using the original 1960s testosterone-fueled swagger in black and white, sixty years before now. If he hadn't been played then by Marcello Mastroianni, or now by Mr. Gutmann, it could easily descend into Harvey Weinstein territory. Instead, it's flirty and confident and fun.
In the beginning of Nine, Guido is the maestro, conducting the women. But by the end of this smart, spirited musical, it's pretty clear these women have turned the tables on him.
Nine runs through March 25, 2023, at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, St. Louis MO. Security is on hand in the fenced parking lot and at the front door. For tickets and information, please visit www.newlinetheatre.com
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