THE BASICS: NINE, the 1982 multiple Tony Award musical (Best Musical, Best Original Score, etc.) by Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston presented by Second Generation Theatre, directed by Victoria Pérez, runs through June 30, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 2 & 8, and Sundays at 2 at Shea’s Smith Theatre, 658 Main Street (508-7480). www.secondgenerationtheatre.comRuntime: 2 hours – 15 minutes with one intermission (full-service bar, snacks).
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Based on Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film 8½, the musical NINE, set in Venice in the 1960s, is the story of fictional film director Guido Contini, who is: A. dreading his imminent 40th birthday, B. unable to come up with a new movie, and C. seemingly incapable of relating as an adult to his wife. Basically, it’s a midlife crisis for a 39-year-old adolescent who never really grew up, and whose lifetime of romantic adventures have come back to haunt him.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: First off, let me stipulate that this was a good production featuring a first-rate cast, staff, and orchestra. It was presented by a company founded and run by women; it was directed by a woman; and it starred 15 wonderful actresses. So, if I were smart, I would say “Hey, if that’s what they want to do….”
HOWEVER, let’s be clear about something. This is a musical that presents toxic masculinity, serial infidelity, cheating, straying, adultery, being unfaithful, having affairs, etc. as normal. It’s also a product of the Italian/Catholic culture of exalting men while women are, as the musical explains, either whores or wives. This is the same 1960s culture that glorified organized crime and covered up sexual abuse by priests. But, because it’s so glamourous, it’s okay?
I’m reminded of a popular meme that appeared in various forms a few years ago: “Fifty Shades of Grey is only romantic because the guy is a billionaire. If he were living in a trailer park it would be an episode of Criminal Minds.”
In one scene we’ve got a stage full of women dancing as French strippers, in another scene spreading their legs and smacking themselves, and in other scenes pouting and fawning. Now I’m going to put all of that into one compartment and accept that if the over two dozen women involved in this production were cool with it, I should be too.
So, in the spirit of “Critique what you see, not what you wish you could be seeing” let’s get to the good stuff. I’m going to go out on a limb and state that this stage orchestra is the best I’ve heard, on any local stage, for this entire theatrical season, and there were only five (5) musicians! Allan Paglia led the group from his keyboard, with Brian McMahon, percussion, and only a trio of strings: Jenna Noreck, violin; Connor Sullivan, cello, and Robert Webster, bass. Why do I keep writing “only?” There’s a reason why the BPO has about 45 string players on stage for most concerts, and that’s because strings generally sound better in multiples. When the number of players is less than 10, we’re in the exalted realm of what is called “chamber music” where the slightest lapse can ruin the show. There were no lapses. Zero. Wow.
…if the over two dozen women involved in this production were cool with it, I should be too.
In order to realistically portray the glamor of the Italian film industry, the founders of Second Generation Theatre (Kelly Copps, Kristin Bentley, and Arin Lee Dandes) have assembled a very good-looking cast around their leading man, the very good-looking Ben Michael Moran. You don’t have to “suspend disbelief” for a second. These folks really do “look the part.” To reference another musical, A CHORUS LINE, it’s not “Dance 10, Looks 3.” It’s “Dance 10, Looks 10.”
Let’s start with the so-called “ensemble” (those without named roles). Just like the fabulous “Laker Girls” at last fall’s Kavinoky Theatre production of SPAMALOT, these six actresses could stop traffic just by standing on the corner waiting for a bus. Here they also sing and dance and appear in various stages of dress and undress, and you’ve seen their names in other fine productions: Bethany Burrows, Anna Fernandez (Dance Captain), Stevie Jackson, Cassidy Kreuzer, Jessie Miller, and Julia Murphy.
And those various stages of dress and undress? Let’s give a HUGE shout out to Costume Designer Lise Harty who must have been working on this project for over a year. The costumes were numerous, varied, clever, and 100% communicative of each individual scene. While we’re at it, let’s applaud Cassie Cameron who for this production took on the exhausting job of Stage Manager and from what I hear, just nailed it night after night (Jessica Faery, Assistant Stage Manager).
Ben Michael Moran is at the top of his game these days and has quite a range, from British comedies over at the Irish Classical Theatre to the tortured souls of, recently, “Prior Walter” in SGT’s production of ANGELS IN AMERICA, and now “Guido Contini” who has gotten himself estranged from his wife (brilliantly played and sung by Aimee Walker whose “My Husband Makes Movies” will rip your heart out), his producer (played with a less than successful French accent by Lisa Ludwig), his former lovers (“Carla” played with ferocity by Kelly Copps and “Claudia” played with elegant style by Arianne Davidow), and, the biggest cause of his mid-life crisis, his estrangement from his former self, the 9-year-old Guido, a role played successfully by Max Goldhirsch.
As an actress Copps can summon up a lethal cocktail of confusion, hurt, and anger. I’ve seen it before and she lets ‘er rip here. I know she loves musicals, but I wish she’d be in even more straight plays with that expressive face. I also want to call attention to the Act II opening duet between Moran and Davidow, “A Man Like You” which was a superb blend of voices.
All of the action takes place on a rather “Italianate” stage of circular platforms decorated to look like marble (Chris Cavanagh – Set, Light & Sound Design). Other fine actors include Mary Gjurich who so looked the part as the mother of 9-year-old Guido; Sabrina Kahwaty was terrific as the arch critic “Stephanie Necrophorus;” and Nicole Cimato was magnificent as “Saraghina,” the prostitute who introduced all the young men at the convent school into the world of sex. Cimato’s interaction with young Goldhirsch was a study in “how to inhabit your character.”
And rounding out the cast were two of my favorite sopranos, Leah Berst as the mysterious go-between, “Our Lady of the Spa,” and, the lady with the high notes, Charmagne Chi, with much appreciated comic relief as Mama Maddalena. Hey Leah, howzabout a cabaret some day to show off them pipes? And everyone reading this, remember Charmagne has two cabarets planned with Joey Donahue III (“now with 30% more jokes”) on August 16 and 23 at MusicalFare.
Images courtesy Second Generation
UP NEXT: Second Generation Theatre (SGT) has announced their 2019-2020 season starting in October with the cult rock musical THE TOXIC AVENGER, then in March (2020) it’s Albee’s Pulitzer Prize winning THREE TALL WOMEN, and next June’s summer musical will be CABARET.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!