A midlife crisis is always a good spectacle, and as a friend noted, the Italians have been having them in style since Dante. Lakewood Theatre Company is getting in the spirit with its current Nine, a Tony Award-winning musical written in 1982 by Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit. All good stories bare repeating: Nine is based on Frederico Fellini’s 8½ , a semi-autobiographical movie about failing to make a movie, and Nine was made into a film in 2009.
Lakewood keeps outdoing itself this year, and Nine keeps the pattern going. The stage is a labyrinth of scaffolding, faded Roman columns, three projection screens, and moving sets. It’s not the peaceful and grandiose spa where the film is set; it’s a little slice of Italy. The show has a cast of 21, most of them long-legged, curvy, and well-coifed creatures whose form we appreciate and call women. There are only three men, and they play the same character, Guido Contini, star director and writer of the screen.
Matthew Hayward is Guido, a stand-in for lead Marcello Mastroianni in the film, who in turn was the stand-in for Fellini, the star director and writer of Italian Neo-Realism. Hayward’s Contini is unearthly handsome, like Mastroianni, with the same rough edges of a man who’s seen too many women: the tousled bedhead, the striking 5 o’clock shadow that exudes testosterone and accents the angles of his finely boned chin. Hayward is well-suited, with a white starched shirt and thin tie, vestire bene for the iconic early ’60s. He’s a little slumped at times, and with 18 women on his heels, Jay-Z – who’s known for 99 problems, but not with females – would buy him a drink or two. Contini persuades his wife, Luisa (Chrissy Kelly-Pettit), to get away and take in the waters at an ancient spa. In the meantime, he’s creating a diversion to procrastinate on a script deadline and mental breakdown. Hayward delivers Contini as a scattered earnestness in his deceptions, a playboy with a believable Northern Italian accent. Hayward sings a robust and flawless The Grand Canal, a solo with a complex syncopated rhyme scheme and rhythm, that left the audience in shock.
The other Continis are Guido at age 9 (played sweetly by Karsten George) and the young man about to hit his prime, acted by Matthew Sepada. The younger Guidos know a bit about trouble, but with 20/20 hindsight, rose-colored glasses: throughout the musical, Hayward is searching for a more innocent and less complicated time. Unlike our dear old friend Dante, who had Virgil as a guide through the circles of Hell, Contini is left alone. His marriage to Luisa is on the rocks, the shadow of his departed mother haunts him, his mistress is insatiable, his producer wants filming to begin, a missing cinematic muse causes frustrations, and Contini has the usual Italian virgin/whore baggage to lug around. Among all the chasing, being chased and sexual innuendos, we all have good laughs through the night at Contini’s expense. Sorry, you’re being hounded by beautiful women, Contini: we’re all pretty sure there are worse situations.
Carla (Ecaterina Lynn) is Contini’s outed lover, and is “the other woman” in every way compared to his wife, Luisa. Lynn captures the crass over-sexed bombastic sex tigress and Carla’s stalking ways to a T. She is impressive during A Call From the Vatican, in which she not only sings an aggressive sultry Eartha Kitt number, but also does a high-wire ballet act with two white silk ropes. She climbs, hangs upside down, spins, turns, and kicks in the air while hitting each note for note, and then descends as easily as a kitten waking from a nap.
Jessica Carr’s costume design makes eye-popping candy in the early ’60s setting: there’s a Brigitte Bardot with her black leotard jumpsuit; Carla’s wicked white designer fishnets and boutique basque; the Nico-looking miniskirt-wearing chanteuse; the lady of the spa in her pristine draped tunic,;Luisa in her tailor-cut black slacks, Gucci eye frames, and button-up blouse. It’s a complex menagerie of major fashion trends of the era that Carr has assembled, while also making direct visual reference to Fellini’s 8½.
Kelly-Pettit’s Luisa plays off of Anouk Aimée’s performance in the original film as a soft, intelligent, and loyal partner to Contini. She’s got it together, which is much more than we can say for her husband. Her two solos in the show, My Husband Makes Movies and Be On Your Own, charge the stage, and as simple as her appearance is, the powerhouse of her talent puts the louder-costumed actresses to the test.
In 8½, young Contini visits an old prostitute on the beach and has his first lesson about sex. The boys at Contini’s school think Sarraghina (an Italian word for sardine) is a powerful witch, and her ragged, sea-stung appearance does little to disprove this. Rachelle Riehl is Nine’s Sarraghina, and she, too, has wild curly hair erupting to her shoulders, an old black cassock full of tears and holes, held together by a leather vest at the hips. Riehl sings the hit number from the musical, Be Italian, and while some of the lyrics could’ve been give more than an old college try, she pulls off the Tarantella-inspired tune with bursts of energy, leaving the audience wishing they had at least a tinge of the Latin blood.
Backing the large and talented cast is a tight eight-piece band, and any musical with live music is one hundred times a better experience. The band was so sophisticated and well-rehearsed that, instead of the shocking jolt that can sometimes rock us when an actor goes into singing in a less-than production, they melted into the background and made the numbers a natural progression of the story.
Laura Hiszczynskyj’s choreography, much like the costume design, called for complicated variety. There are moments of sweet and simple movement and others where Nine explodes into a pageant of swirling and alternating dances on the floor, in hoops, and on platforms: 21 bodies forming a human spiral.
Between the dizzying number of cast members, scene changes and song numbers, director Ron Daum had his work cut out. He revives a grand love affair for all things iconically Italian, and with this show suggests that Lakewood, with a string of hits and its recent triumphs at the Drammy and PAMTA theater awards for its Man of La Mancha, is on a roll. This is what Nine is known for: not as a picture-perfect homage to the great black-and-white moving paintings that Fellini created, but rather pure Broadway entertainment using and packing all its artistic punches. Fellini approved of this idea for a musical, and so will you.
Nine continues through August 14 at Lakewood Theatre in Lake Oswego. Schedule and ticket information here.