Poor Guido Contini. With more than 20 women vying for his attention, Contini has a lot on his mind. What‘s a man to do? Contini’s marriage to a former starlet is dull, his mistress is lusting after him and his French producer is pressuring him about his next film. No wonder he begins imagining women flocking to him as if he were a Greek god.
Arizona Repertory Theatre closes its season with a bang — literally. With orgasms, groping and straddling aplenty, this last musical, directed by Danny Gurwin, is definitely not for the modest or faint of heart.
“Nine,” based on Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film “8 1/2” tells the story of a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis.
He runs off to Venice to find inspiration for his next movie, but only ends up in more trouble than before. Though the musical is hardly vulgar, sex is everywhere, and it plays a major role in the story. It’s daring of ART to embrace the sexuality of its production so fully.
But beneath its overt sexual themes, “Nine” reveals the life and mind of a genius, illustrating the power of the imagination to lead us to fantasy and creativity, but also into trouble.
“Guido… Guido… Guido,” the women chant, surrounding the filmmaker, who is played by musical theatre junior Max Tzannes.
His voice is strong yet suave, perfect for the vocal and acting range Contini requires. Tzannes seems to be having the time of his life starring in a cast of over 20 women continuously caressing and fondling him.
Though all the women dress in black, each has a distinct style stemming from her unique character so the audience never confuses which seductress is which.
Caitlin Stegemoller, a BFA senior, plays Contini’s mistress, Carla. Though her role in “Nine” is another that flaunts her sexuality, it also showcases Stegemoller’s talent and range. Carla is the epitome of sex. It’s in her walk, her attitude and certainly in the orgasm she has in a bathtub onstage. But Stegemoller uses this as an opportunity to demonstrate why she is sure to be the next big UA ART alumnus.
As sexy as Carla is, Contini’s wife, Luisa, played by BFA senior Erica Renee Smith, is as much the opposite. Petite in stature and overly compassionate, she is the wife every mother would love her son to have.
All of the actors carried an Italian accent impressively throughout the show. A bad accent sticks out like a sore thumb in live productions. With the help of dialect coach David Morden and the UA’s Italian department, each actor perfected their own accent, adding to the realism of the show.
“It’s a very tricky musical to do,” said Kelsey Anne Johnson, the musical theatre senior who plays Claudia. “There are no rules to the play so you can bounce around from surrealism to realism, what is present and past, what is real and what is in Contini’s head.”
Therefore, staging was crucial, said Johnson. One interesting design choice put the orchestra right on stage with the actors.
“The orchestra and direction of Shawn Cullen was a dream come true and an important part to the show,” Johnson added.
“It adds to the overall picture, message and tone of the show and how the actors function. It’s designed to flow and adds to the collaborative effort of the entire show.”
The music haunts not only Contini, but also the audience. “Nine” is hardly a golden-age show tunes musical like “Oklahoma” or “The Sound of Music.” The eeriness of the all-female chorus brings a rare depth, tone and breadth to the performance. Though the nonlinear plot may be disorienting, as it blurs the boundary between dream and reality, everyone can enjoy the music.
The filmmaker, Fellini, said he didn’t think it was fair to present a formulated ending to his work. If he couldn’t know the ending to his own life, why should he fake it for his audience? Therefore, he left much of his work open to interpretation — especially when it came to endings.
ART’s “Nine” may be left open-ended, but it is satisfying nonetheless.
This show is a feat, said Johnson. “It’s dirty. It’s scary, but I’m definitely glad to be going off on this note.”