Guido Contini is turning fifty. His last three films were flops. His producer expects a new film script in four days that he has not started. His leading star and oft-lover is refusing to do another film with him. His wife is telling him she wants a divorce, and his young mistress is threatening to divorce her husband so she and Guido can marry – something he definitely does not want to do.
No wonder Guido is near a nervous breakdown, a condition that leads him to call on nine key women of his life – past, present, and even future – to help him sort through all his self-made messes and his mid-life mega-crisis. Based on Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film 8½, Nine the Musical is the Maury Yeston (music and lyrics) and Arthur Kopit (book) winner of both the 1982 Tony for Best Musical and the 2003 Tony for Best Musical Revival. But it is a musical that is somewhat rare on the regional stage due to the difficulty of casting nine women of varying decades in age capable of singing the challenging music. For San Jose’s Guggenheim Productions, that is a challenge taken on and successfully met as a full-sounding, intriguing, and overall entertaining Nine the Musical opens at their 3Below Theatres and Lounge.
As Guido’s wife, Luisa, declares to him, “I have to tell you, this is just not my idea of a successful marriage,” Guido escapes into his imagination to conduct in swirling harmonies a symphony of nine women singing “La-la-la” while they – in his ego-centered dream – center their affections, eyes full of love, and soft caresses on him, and only him. Along with his present wife, there are present and past lovers, a lady of the night who took him under her wing when he was a boy of nine, his producer, his main critic, and even his now-dead mother.
Guido’s mounting pressures send him into a near state of madness, with Stephen Guggenheim booming his wonderful, Italian-accented notes as he sings “Guido’s Song.” Here is a man who has ruled the fans of Hollywood and Cannes alike with his films that have been hits with stars that are world-renown (and often his lovers). He desperately wants that life to continue, singing, “I am lusting for more; should I settle for less? I ask you, what’s a good thing for, if not for taking it to excess?” The richness of Guido’s vocals are mirrored by the swelling of his chest – an ego clearly inflating by the minute – and a return to his dream where these nine women of his life now again surround him, singing “Guido, Guido, Guido” as if the finale of a grand opera.
Guido convinces his wife that what they both need is a trip to an upscale spa to have time just the two of them – a spa under the strict control of Mama Maddelena (Krista Wigle) who leads her Italian maids in a hilarious number with rapid-fire lyrics sung in counter melodies to prepare for and welcome “The Germans at the Spa.” As Guido and Luisa arrive amidst such hubbub, reporters immediately fire paparazzi-like questions at them, leading Louisa to defend all their insinuating questions about her husband’s failures and his affairs, singing “My Husband Makes Music.”
Susan Gundunas impressively brings an appropriately mature-sounding voice, forming her attention-worthy notes sung in a perfectly pronounced accent of Italian, “Guido Contini, Luisa Contini, Number One genius, Number One fan.” But when she steps away from the reporters to reflect in a deeper, more solitary voice, she sings, “How he needs me now … And he’ll be the last to know it.” As the story progresses, time and again Susan Gundunas is a Luisa whose looks of love and hurt as well as admiration and sense of betrayal so vividly show in her eyes and facial expressions while her vocals full of rolled ‘R’s’ and forceful emotions capture a wife who – like the unfaithful husband she loves – is at an important crossroads in her life.
To the spa where Guido promises his wife they will be alone to picnic, sip wine, and relax (Does he have crossed fingers behind his back?) comes a series of visitors – both real and in his imagination – all looking for him. Before she arrives, his mistress Carla Albanese calls him on the phone just as he is in the midst of convincing Luisa that she is now the only woman in his life. As he talks to Carla and not to the supposed Vatican film censors that he tells Luisa are calling, Becky Elizabeth Stout as a dreamed Carla appears in mini-skirt that shows more than it should to wrap her long legs around Guido as her red curls fall over his head, singing with voice equally sweetly pretty and seductively sexy, “A Call from the Vatican.”
Not so welcomed by Guido is his demanding French producer, Liliane Le Fleur, played with army sergeant barking by Elizabeth Palmer. She is impatient for some sign of a script and cast for a film for which she has already given Guido a large advance (all already spent of course). When he clearly has none yet, she suddenly becomes the scantily dressed star of a French nightclub act, demonstrating the kind of romantic, big-stage number she wants to see in a musical she wants him to write. Joined by a stage-full of women fanning feathers and dancing on raised steps like in a 1930s musical of old, Elizabeth Palmer shines as she sings “Folies Bergeres” with the full, dance-line company.
Choreographer Shannon Guggenheim’s magic that starts with the opening dream sequence of nine women singing their “la-la’s” is further born out in numbers like the previous one recalling a Montmarte-type nightclub and in one of the evening’s loudest applause recipients and show’s best-known number, “Be Italian.” As Guido remembers as a boy of nine when he ventured to the beach to learn about life from a prostitute named Sarraghina, her advice to him to “be daring and uncaring” and to “pick the flower now before the chance is past” is played out with the full cast bawdily playing tambourines in faster and faster succession, beating them on elbows, heads, and spots not to be mentioned in a public review! Through it all, Krista Wigle returns now as Sarraghina, trumpeting a voice that rings with love of life and also opens up many adventurous possibilities as her vocals become ever-more raw and gritty in their gravelly sound.
Director Scott Evan Guggenheim joins forces time and again with the choreographer to create fun and funny scenes of Guido’s imagination, including “The Script.” Guido wildly brainstorms ideas for a film that include monkeys and trains in a spa as the women of his life frantically act the scenes of his desperate grasping at straws for good ideas.
Along the way, more women arrive at the spa, real and in his head. Famed film star Claudia Nardi comes to help her sometime-producer, sometime-lover out of his funk and to break the news that she plans no longer to be a part of his films or his life as his lover (with Amy Bouchard singing a reflectively moving, deeply caring duet with Guido, “A Man Like You/Unusual Way”). Guido’s mother (Michelle Shannon) is never far from his conscience, always watching on the stage and often appearing in both flashbacks of his childhood and in dreamed moments of parental hugging and advice. Heather Faulhauber, Heather Mae Steffen, and Katherine Stine round out the nine as Our Lady of the Spa, Lina Darling, and Stephanie Necrophorus. Besides their primary roles, all nine women quickly and constantly transform into varied roles that include maids, aunts, nuns, dancing girls, actors in a documentary or a western, and many more actual and dreamed participants in Guido’s wild and crazy week at the spa.
Never leaving the stage and often walking around to get a closer look or to help the fifty-year-old Guido conduct the comings and goings of his dreams is Young Guido, about to turn nine and already showing signs of more maturity and wisdom than his much older self. Seventh-grader Elijah Seid-Valencia pensively observes, playfully reacts, and wisely advises in his role as Young Guido. He also sings in a soft, sweet boy’s voice the musical’s resolution of the elder Guido’s myriad of mid-life crises, “Getting Tall.”
Julie Engelbrecht takes much of the credit for the show’s look, having designed both the set and the costumes. The stage is bedecked with white, satiny columns of cloth (columns by Camay Chan), internally lit as part of Steve Retsky’s lighting design. Those columns become movable props as do the white, leather sets of steps each rests upon, the latter moved many times to become furniture, stages, etc. Costumes magnificently define each of the nine women’s personalities and backgrounds as well as the many characters they suddenly change to become; and the era of the 1960s is borne out in clothing, hair, and make-up. Special kudos goes to the sound design of Jon Leyden who has ensured not only is there never a glitch in hearing the lyrics of the singers, but also has taken a recorded score and made it sound live, in perfect timing and balance with the singers on stage.
Nine is in many ways a unique musical in its structure, story, and songs. Many of the songs are not that memorable, but each fits the mood of the moment. Some seem strange and hardly needed to be included (e.g., “The Germans at the Spa”); and even the title song is soon forgotten. But with few exceptions, this 3Below cast takes what they are given and sells, sells, sells each number. The result is a rare opportunity to see an important entry in the Great American Musical catalogue – one directed, performed, and designed with Great White Way style and flair.
Rating: 4 E
Nine continues through November 10, 2019 Thursdays through Sundays at 3 Below Theatres & Lounge, 288 South Second Street, San Jose. Tickets are available online at https://3belowtheaters.com/.
Photo by Guggenheim Entertainment