Music and Lyrics by Maury Yeston
Book by Arthur Kopit
Directed and Choreographed by Jon Douglas Rake
Tacoma Musical Playhouse

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

This was my first visit to the Tacoma Musical Playhouse and their impressive staging of “Nine” was a distinct pleasure. This 1982 musical tells the story of a once-successful Italian film director and his complicated relationships with the numerous women in his life. Based on Fellini's “8 1/2” the show, with book by Arthur Kopit and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, is not commonly produced. Part of the reason is that the physical production requires a rich and sophisticated set, a truckload of costumes, competent and experienced musical accompaniment and firm dramatic and musical direction. Even more demanding, it requires one actor to play Guido Contini with enough vocal and dramatic talent to center the entire production. Finally, it calls for a stage-full of beautiful, musically talented, complex and compelling women. This production has that talent in abundance, and Director/Choreographer Jon Douglas Rake tells the story with great pace and clarity. He brings us to genuine concern for a man whom it is not really easy to care about, an egotist facing a crisis of confidence, a cad masquerading as a romantic.
There may be two kinds of men who are philanderers. The first is so in love with women, or with the idea of women, that he cannot deny himself any female to whom he is attracted because he loves them all. The second is the man who has sexual relationships with so many women because he cannot truly love any of them. In the first act, Guido joyously celebrates being that first kind of man. In the second he unhappily discovers he may be the second kind. In the end, he finds that love has a very real price, and that avoiding it through his selfish infidelity has an even greater price. It is a very adult, very substantial piece of musical theatre and one that delivers Guido not so much to redemption as to a reprieve.
Rafe Wadleigh has the daunting task of making Guido Contini charming enough, attractive enough, imaginative enough and sympathetic enough that we can understand how and why all these women fall in love with him. He must also convince us that the experiences of love and lust that Guido experiences as a young boy sufficiently account for his arrested development, and his inability to become a man, to mature beyond an adolescent titillation. Wadleigh has great presence and considerable acting skill. He also gives a strong and convincing vocal performance, something which is especially important given that the ensemble of women surrounding him are all fine singers and the excellent musical direction of Jeffrey Stvrtecky gets the most out of this very good score. Most importantly, he has a self-deferential quality that counteracts the essential arrogance of Guido, and allows us to genuinely hope that he will overcome his own inadequacies and immaturities.
Guido lives in a world populated entirely by women, and the women of this cast make that world beautiful, alluring and distinctive. His is a challenging world because none of these women are less than whole people, complicated, vulnerable, strong and uncompromising. It is that quality of character that really defines the challenge Guido faces in himself.
As his wife, Luisa, Maria Valenzuela added depth and emotion to her strong voice. In her critical introductory song, “My Husband Makes Movies” we learn why she loves him so much, why she has endured his humiliating infidelity, who he is to her, and why her own commitment to their relationship has carried them through. I think it was a directorial error to have the song delivered full-front, without allowing any connection between Luisa and Guido, who is sitting center stage through the whole number. Nonetheless, she performs the song very well and is even stronger when she emancipates herself in the second act. She simply cannot endure any more of the fantasy, the self-delusion, or the string of other women.
When we are first introduced to Carla, Guido’s longtime mistress, it’s pretty easy to understand why this weak-willed man is unable to resist her seduction. Iris Elton is absolutely sizzling as Carla, combining physical sex appeal with real beauty and a marvelous voice. The other women in Guido’s life have equally appealing if more diverse attractions. Marissa Ryder brings elegance and an exquisite face and physical bearing to the role of Claudia, an actress who has been Guido’s muse in previous films, and in all his successes. Alison Monda plays an icy, intellectual playwright brought in to help him write a new screenplay, and hers is the most cerebral understanding of what makes the man tick, and the most unforgiving. Jill Goodman adds a ton of show-biz savvy to the producer, La Fleur, who brings her Folies Bergere experience to invigorate the fantasy in his new production. Finally (and I am leaving out the rest of an exceptionally, uniformly accomplished ensemble) Lisa Wright Thiroux ends the first act as the prostitute, Sarraghina, whose terrific performance of “Ti Voglio Bene / Be Italian” fully illuminates why Guido, as a very young boy, is first consumed by his appetites for lust and vivacious creative expression.
In spite of the inherent difficulties of making this less than admirable man a sympathetic character, I think that “Nine” is a rather underestimated piece of musical theatre. Certainly the score, especially when it’s as well performed as it is here, creates a grandeur as fantastic as Guido’s imaginings. The quite internalized drama of Guido’s pursuit of authenticity worked for me, in large part because of Mr. Wadleigh’s performance. Add to that the attractive scenic design, wonderful costumes, beautiful women of great variety and distinct identity, and deliver it all with serious investment and a very high level of talent and this production may well have been better than the show itself.
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