What do you get with a cast of 1 artistic film director plus 10 beautiful ladies? Nope, not eleven, it’s Nine!
Presented by Wildwood Summer Theatre, composed by Maury Yeston, written by Arthur Kopit, and directed by Rocky Nunzio, Nine follows the tale of struggling Italian film director Guido Contini (Noah Beye) as he obsesses to find his next film idea. Guido is pressured by his producer Liliana La Fleur (Mary Murdock) to produce a musical, and he chooses to use the content from his own life experiences Stakes are high and Guido’s career, relationships, and life all hang on the film’s success. What results is a delicate balance of Guido’s sensual affairs with Carla Albanese (Shabnam Salek) and Claudia Nardi (Kathryn Bailey) and his marriage with Luisa (Kathryn Bailey) as he seeks out his ultimate cinematic inspiration.
The stage is small, concave, and very close to the seats, with three upstage arcs and a curtain acting as a partition to the wings and orchestra. The live orchestra, directed by Matthew Dohm, served as the musical’s accompaniment, with keyboard, guitar, violin, cello, and reeds. The set itself was simple, with two short pedestals on either side and an altar structure in the middle. The sound effects by Andrew Wink served their purpose, but sometimes overlapped the actors’ voices.
The lighting by Elliott Shugoll was simple but very effective—the musical itself opens with silhouettes and this technique was used frequently, giving Nine an obscure, surreal, dreamlike quality. Though there was little in the way of props and set pieces, this helped to retain focus on the actors and singing. Costume design by Rose Weich was straightforward and clean with characters dressed up to the “nines.” It consisted mainly of formal wear and solid colors, with Guido wearing a suit, scarf, and sunglasses.
Noah Beye did an excellent job portraying the esteemed, womanizing, and highly creative Guido. The cast is all female except for him, which helped to emphasis his presence, importance, masculinity, and scarcity. Whether through standing on a set piece or clutching a woman in his arms, Beye used the space well and spoke in a confident tone. At one point he addressed audience members directly by walking up to them and making eye contact, an effective way to engage given the proximity of the stage.
Beye’s vocals were consistently powerful, but two songs stood out: For “Only With You” Guido envisions that he only needs one woman to be happy, which just happens to be three—Luisa, Carla, and Claudia. Guido’s infatuation with all three women was something he embellished to a humorous degree. He also gives an intense delivery with “I Can’t Make This Movie,” where he drops to his knees, clutches his fists, and shakes his voice. Beye’s Guido was suave but honest and was the glue that united the performance.
Others who contributed to the success of the production were Liliane La Fleur played by Mary Murdock, whose sharp gaze and decisive movements exuded her authority.
Luisa Contini was portrayed by Destani Gross, and you could feel her character’s anguish and inner frustration. There was strong conflict from Kathryn Bailey’s Claudia Nardi, who clearly exhibited her struggle to win Guido’s affection as a woman and not simply as his actress. The deadpan delivery of Mercedes Blankenship portraying Stephanie Necrophorus was quite funny and contrasted with well with the rest of the cast. The whole company was immensely talented, particularly in the vocal department.
But my favorite was Carla, the seductive mistress of Guido, played by Shabnam Salek. Salek pulled off her role with aplomb, translating into a particularly fresh, zesty, and energetic performance. In one song amusingly entitled “A Call from the Vatican,” Salek seductively teases Guido over the phone, slinking and caressing her body, speaking in a breathy way, and even splaying her legs out at him. Salek made bold choices as an actress, and was always completely present on stage. She was an absolute joy to watch and I’m excited to see where her exuberant acting talent takes her next.
As an Italian Studies major, I particularly appreciated Nine’s Italian thematic influences. Some of the characters spoke in accents, and occasionally in Italian, though the Italian words were not essential to understand and simply colored the dialogue. There were also Renaissance-period pictures of nude women on the walls, echoing an artistic Italian motif. Further, the very name Nine was inspired by fabled Italian film director Frederico Fellini, who directed 8 ½, also about an Italian director struggling with writer’s block. There were other cultures represented as well, as the character Liliane would also speak and sing in French. Anyone with an interest in arthouse film or European culture will find something to love in this musical.
To enhance Nine’s impact, it may have helped clarity if there were more of Caroline Tyson’s props or set pieces to indicate a change in setting. However, since it is never entirely clear whether what is occurring onstage is a real life experience, part of the movie, or simply within Guido’s mind, if this ambiguity of setting was intentional, then it was very effective.
There were many touching songs in this play, but the real showstopper was “Ti Voglio Bene/Be Italian” sung by Saraghina and portrayed by Sanjana Taskar. The context is that Saraghina is a prostitute showing a young Guido how to be a man, visualized through Taskar’s tattered low-cut dress and heavy eye liner as she prances around him. With Taskar’s tambourine, tarantella dancing, and soaring vocals, she took full command of the stage and the cheers from the audience. Powerful, exhilarating, and mildly disturbing, this number alone is worth the price of admission and will leave you with chills.
What is probably most impressive about this production is what was announced by Producer Mattia D’Affuso at the end: Wildwood Summer Theatre is DC’s only nonprofit theatre company entirely run by persons aged 14-25. All these actors have great potential and it is inspiring to see such talent from people so young.
If you want to support youth in the arts, love European culture, or just want to see a rollickingly fun musical, go see Nine. It’s benissimo!
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.