The Civil War. Marijuana propaganda. Steven King’s Carrie. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Great moments in American cultural history? Sure, but also examples of how anything can be turned into a stage musical.
Add the musical Nine to the list of eyebrow-raising treatments. It’s based on Federico Fellini’s landmark 1963 avant-garde 8 1/2, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and generally ranks near the top of any list of the greatest movies ever made.
But it is a film almost exclusively about film; Roger Ebert called it the greatest such work ever made. It is form-tweaking, genre-bending, fantastic and image-laden, and it revels in the space between reality and hallucinations.
Why Maury Yeston ever wanted to turn that film into a musical is anybody’s guess. But he did, and its 1983 production wowed ’em on Broadway, winning 12 Tony Awards. A 2003 revival also won a Tony, and a 2009 film version merited four Academy Award nominations.
It’s obviously a work with legs. But based on this Hunger Artists production, it’s easy to conclude that the public’s appetite for Nine has less to do with the meaty content of the musical itself than with a great hunger the public has to make excuses for its fascination with trite musicals.
Because, awards be damned, Nine is a long way from a great musical—and not just because it turns Fellini’s intricately probing film about artistic self-determination into a flaccid, pedestrian exploration of the Peter Pan complex. Forget any connection to 8 1/2; Nine blows purely on its own (lack of) merits: thinly drawn characters, insipid music and lyrics, and, perhaps worst of all—something so emblematic of most musical theater—a tirelessly offensive tendency to tackle big, important questions through sentimental hokum and pablum.
Guido Contini, a famous avant-garde Italian film director, has just turned 40 and faces a multipronged midlife crisis: His last several films have bombed, he must begin shooting a film he lacks a script for, and his 20-year marriage is crumbling. But Guido has a couple of things going for him: He’s brilliant, and he’s really good with the ladies. But he’s also prone to hallucinations, most of them involving the various women he’s used for years as creative grist for his artistic mill.
In an effort to get some much-needed R&R, he retreats to a Venetian spa with his wife; unfortunately, he’s hounded by the press; his demanding French producer and her über-critical assistant; and one of his many mistresses, who’s convinced their futures are written in the stars.
As Guido descends into more hallucinations, he decides to film a musical about the legendary philanderer Casanova. But the film is a bust, as Guido tries to merge his real and fantasy life into a huge epic. His wife leaves him. His actress muse abandons the project. And, finally, Guido wrestles with ending it all. Then, in vintage deus ex machina mode, his 9-year-old self appears and tells him that all his travails just mean that it’s time for Guido to finally grow up.
Told through Fellini’s lens, the story is a masterpiece; through Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit’s book, however, it feels sloppy and ridiculous.
Not that this Hunger Artists production, helmed by director Susan Marx, doesn’t do everything it can to add luster to this theatrical turd. Marx deserves a couple of stars for even managing to stage a 16-character play—in which most of the characters share the stage with each other for long stretches—in one of the smaller storefront theaters in Orange County.
And Marx pulls in a few ringers in key roles. Dan Wozniak’s Guido is superb. Though his character should be an unlikable pig—he’s self-obsessed, egotistical and a liar who uses women as checkers pieces—Wozniak somehow manages to make Guido eminently likeable and even sympathetic. This is a man absolutely into himself—both his virtues and his flaws. And Wozniak captures the angst of a man staring into the abyss of his own being and seeing his own frailty.
Tara Pitt, as Wozniak’s long-suffering-but-at-her-limits wife, Luisa, is also strong, as is Lindsay Martin’s Carla, the lusty, love-struck woman who yearns for Guido to be her own.
The supporting characters run the gamut from solid to awkward, but Andrea Dennison-Laufer is an absolute spitfire in the role of Stephanie, a cynical movie critic turned assistant director. She steals every scene she’s in, not through mugging or drawing focus, but through sheer commitment to the moment.
But acting chops still can’t carry this clunker of a script. The use of recorded music also doesn’t help, but, honestly, unless a band dangled from the ceiling, I don’t know how any other human beings could possibly squeeze onto the stage.
With its large cast and complicated story, Nine is not a simple musical to pull off. And though Marx succeeds in averting a logistical nightmare, it’s not enough to convincingly show that Nine is worth the bother.
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Nine at Hunger Artists Theatre, 699-A, S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-6804; www.hungerartists.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through May 23. $18-$20.
This review appeared in print as "Not a Magic Number: The talented folks at Hunger Artists can only do so much with the celebrated-yet-insipid musical Nine."