Written by Erin Tobin
No matter how tough you thought your Valentine’s Day was, director David A.Blair and the Costa Mesa Playhouse have the perfect example of how bad it could be, thanks to their current production of Nine.
On its surface Nine is the tale of Guido Contini, a famous Italian writer, actor, and director suffering from a horrible case of writer’s block while working on his next project. It’s thought that perhaps the cause of the block stems from the number of women on his mind. There’s his wife, Luisa, (portrayed by Jennifer Pearce in her return to Costa Mesa’s little proscenium stage since playing Ruth in Blithe Spirit in 2011) who promptly tells Guido she wants a divorce. Guido is still madly in love with her, but he’s also passionately drawn to his sultry and seductive mistress Carla, a part that gives actress Rainy Terrell a chance to show off her amazing vocal talent. There’s also his muse, actress Claudia Nardi, whose elegance and refinement is captured by Araceli Applegate. Rounding out the female voices pounding through Guido’s head are his mother (played by Patty Zantos), his current producer Liliane La Fleur ( played by Rosemary London), her assistant–and Guido’s biggest critic- Stephanie Necrophorus (played by Stephanie Thomas). Two additional standout performances came from Rebecca Butkivich as Our Lady of the Spa, who stands in as a seductive narrator, and Jessica-Elisabeth playing Saraghina, the woman who taught a young Guido what it means “To Be Italian.”
While the setup may suggest otherwise, Nine is not a romantic comedy. Ultimately the relationship Guido must really deal with is the one with himself. The plot twists and turns through his thoughts and memories as well as his present situation which requires him to come up with a new script in less than a week. As a reminder of the fact that most of the play takes place in Guido’s head, set designer Michael Serna creates a disjointed, dream-like setting of random chairs, ramps, floating lights, and umbrellas.
With a surreal set and non-linear plot, Nine is a tough musical to tackle, and although the Costa Mesa Playhouse attack it passionately, there are some difficult moments with the cast seemingly unaware of their lines or characters. As Guido, actor William Crisp proves he has the acting chops to lead the cast. He convincingly portrays the Italian’s exhausting struggle, but the same cannot be said about some of the other actors who seemed to struggle with characterization. In addition it is sometimes hard to hear the actors over the live musicians.
These glitches aside, Nine is a unique production, partly because it has an interesting background. It originally opened on Broadway in 1982, winning itself a Tony for Best Musical (and it also picked one up for Best Revival in 2003), but it is based on the film 8 ½, which is considered the autobiographical work of real Italian director Federico Fellini who was known for his blend of earthliness and fantasy as well as neorealism. His work inspired everything from the television shows Northern Exposure and Third Rock from the Sun.
Sidenote : “The great secret of Nine is that it took 8 1/2 and became an essay on the power of women by answering the question, “What are women to men?” And Nine tells you: they are our mothers, our sisters, our teachers, our temptresses, our judges, our nurses, our wives, our mistresses, our muses.” – Creator of NINE