I suppose it was inevitable that one of these days, a Fellini film would be turned into a Broadway musical – most cinematic trope eventually do – but I don’t think I’d have guessed the first one to be adapted would turn out to be 8 ½.
The film is fairly subtle in its themes and non-linear in its execution, a story told through series of impressions that only begin to add up to anything like a plot after multiple viewings and a considerable amount of head-scratching. The writers of Nine, Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit, attempt to fashion a traditional libretto from the source material while retaining its dreamlike quality, drawing on the central theme of a celebrated, debauched film director afflicted by writer’s block, terrified of being crushed by an impending deadline, borrowing elements from Fellini’s work for some portions, building others from old fashioned Broadway melodrama.
Impressionistic flashbacks from Guido the director’s memory – learning about sex from a hooker on the beach, being coddled by his adoring mother, enduring the horrors of Catholic school – are rendered as song and dance numbers, as he attempts to draw inspiration from them and come up with an idea for a script before the film crew arrives, all while juggling multiple love interests alongside his long-suffering wife. When he finally catches a flash of an idea –excruciatingly pronounced as “ee-DAY-uh” by lead actor David Michael Trevino – to cast himself as Casanova, the show manages to go on, until Guido’s romantic life unravels and he finds himself abandoned, unable to continue.
DOMA has proved itself to be capable of presenting production value in a small space, and the major set pieces here, such as the Folies Bergere fantasy that arises from a conversation with his producer, and the filming on the Grand Canal – don’t disappoint. Staging on some of the other dream sequences is so minimal, the actors nearly recede from view, placing the focus squarely on the music, beautifully performed by a live band and sung by a virtually all-female cast. Aside from Young Guido, who appears in flashbacks to talk to his older self, I can’t think of another male character that had lines, though some were seen in the larger production numbers. The virtually all-female tableau on the stage makes a fitting backdrop for a director described by film critic Stephanie Necrophorous (Andrea Arvanian) as “a typical Italian… a mixture of Catholicism, pasta and pornography.”
Trevino plays Guido as a lovable cad, a contrast to the arrogant megalomaniac I first saw in the role back in 1987. Trevino’s portrayal is a lot more watchable, a decent if not entirely honest guy that has a weakness for the finer things and is now used to getting them. These include Carla, a mistress played by Lovlee Carroll with steam pouring from her shoulders, cooing over the phone how she wants to make Guido “vibrate like a string I’m…. plucking.” His wife, Luisa (Melissa Anjose), can’t help but pick up on this exchange, though Guido fobs her off with “It’s from the Vatican – go ahead, Monsignor”, and she resignedly sings of how she believes her love can redeem him from the man he used to be. At the same moment, he’s pining for a third he can’t have, his old co-star and former lover Claudia (Toni Smith), who shuts down any romantic potential but nevertheless returns to be in the movie and provides the crucial flash of inspiration when she calls him “my charming Casanova.” All the singers are excellent, with special notice going to DOMA newcomer Anjose for her reading of the optimistic but doomed wife of a serial betrayer.
One sour note that can’t go overlooked, the comically exaggerated French and Italian accents are cringe-inducing across the board tonight, making me think it was someone’s idea to make them all that way. That’s just not working out. Moderately acceptable French and Italian accents don’t seem like too much to ask for in a musical set in Venice.
DOMA’s Nine is ultimately a powerful enough production to recommend without reservation, a strong contender from a consistently strong company.
Nine runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm, through August 18 at the Met Theater, 1089 Oxford Avenue (Near Santa Monica and Western). Visit their website for tickets and info.