In Venice, I've looked for evidence of movies I've seen that are set there. I'm always peeking into shop windows, looking for the timepiece Capucine brings to Rex Harrison in The Honey Pot, and I once spent an entire morning sitting opposite the little antique store where Rossano Brazzi worked in David Lean's Summertime. But I suspect that when I'm next in Venice, I'll be looking for the sights and sounds of Arthur Kopit's Nine, after having seen Phoenix Theatre's stunning production of the show on Easter Sunday.
Nine is a notoriously difficult musical to stage. Based on Federico Fellini's semiautobiographical movie 8½, Kopit's story of fictional film director Guido Contini's midlife crisis is a sophisticated tangle of sexual and emotional turmoil. Maury Weston's stylish score is less about hummable tunes than about advancing a story of a lusty man's writer's block and past peccadilloes. Thanks to Michael Barnard's astute direction and cunning choreography and a stunning cast, this Nine sizzles, rarely slowing down long enough for us to consider how cheerless its story can be.
The fellow at the center of that story is a bit of a downer, too. Contini is about to turn 40 and is having trouble writing the script for his new film, a musical that shoots in less than a week. His wife, a film star named Luisa, is leaving him, and he's haunted, both in person and in his memory, by a dozen-odd mistresses, a nun, and his mother, as he tries to come up with a story to tell.
Barnard's choreography, expertly danced throughout, is exceptional, but this is a tale of tuneful anguish, with very little capering about. It's up to Nine's leading man to hold this musical anvil aloft — something Craig Laurie does with enormous energy and style. He handles the unreasonable weight of this roman a clef with loads of charm, rescuing his Guido from doldrums and allowing him to evolve in sensibility and tone as the story moves along.
Laurie has plenty of competition for our attention. Johanna Carlisle provides the show-stopping centerpiece to "Ti Voglio Bene/Be Italian," the rowdy coming-of-age number at the end of Act One. And Kim Manning's star turn in the "Folies Bergeres" number is so charismatic, it survives even a cheesy audience participation bit wedged into its middle. Jeannie Shubitz as Guido's long-suffering wife and Alyssa Chiarello as his newest mistress both deliver distinct and memorable performances — an accomplishment in a cast of 19 performers in a show that's frankly a very tough sell.
As Stephanie Necrophorus, the musical's fictional film critic, says of Contini's movies, it's hard to make entertainment out of such dreariness and angst. ("Thanks to him, we have boredom at the movies!" she bellows.) But what do critics know? Phoenix Theatre has delivered a Nine that turns turmoil into entertainment.