I Could Never Understand Those Italian Art Films

Nine (DOMA Theatre Group)userpic=theatre_ticketsBack in 1982, I was captivated by the performance of Kathi Moss is “Be Italian”, from the musical “Nine“, on the Tony Awards. I quickly went out and got the cast album, and promptly fell in love with the music. I saw it on the Tony’s again in 2003, and have distinct memories of seeing “Getting Tall” somehwere. (I’ve never seen the movie). But I’ve never had the opportunity to see the full musical. So when DOMA Theatre Company (FB) opted to mount “Nine” this summer, I jumped at the opportunity to see it (although I was disappointed this postponed the scheduled “Sweet Charity“, but hopefully that will show up some day). Last night we saw the show at DOMA; here are my thoughts.

Nine” (book by Arthur Kopit, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston) is based upon the movie “8½” by Federico Fellini. It tells the story of Guido Contini, a celebrated Italian director who has just signed a contract to make a new movie. The only problem is — he has no idea what the movie will be about. He goes off to a spa in Venice with his wife, Luisa, to try to find an idea for the movie.  Once at the spa, he continues to juggle women — his wife; his mistress, Carla; his producer, Liliane LaFleur; her assistant, Stephanie Necrophorus; and the ladies of the spa. Further, as his creative block worsens, his past starts to blend with his present, adding his mother to the mix. This includes the memories of Saraghina, the whore, and how he visited her when he was 9. He’s also juggling his cast, including Claudia Nardi, his lead actress, who he wants for the film, but who doesn’t want to keep playing the same role. He eventually comes upon a subject (Casanova) and starts filming, but it ends up being his life, and it ends up collapsing. All the women in his life start to leave him — Carla, Claudia, Luisa, Liliane. This leads him to attempt suicide. He ends up confronting… himself.

The book for this production appears to have been a jumble from the 2003 revival and the movie. I’ve read the synopsis of both the 1982 original and the 2003 revival. This production omitted “The Germans at the Spa”, making it the 2003 revival version. However, the ending fitted neither the 1982 nor 2003 versions. In the DOMA version, Guido just confronts and accepts his 9-year old self at the end. I don’t recall the women returning (sans Luisa), nor do I recall him returning to Luisa. More significantly, they didn’t do “Getting Tall”, which is what makes the point about Guido’s rediscovery of himself at the end. In fact, their musical sections are a bit of a jumble, as they interpolate two songs from the movie: “Cinema Italiano” at the start of Act II (after “The Bells of St. Sebastian”), and “Guarda La Luna” in the “Getting Tall” position just before the closing “Long Ago”. The former works, although it wasn’t where it was in the film; the latter doesn’t and adds to the closing confusion. As a result of these changes, I found myself enjoying much of the musical, but being totally confused at the end. Perhaps that was an homage to Italian Cinema.

I think the fault here belongs with the executive producer / director / musical stager, Marco Gomez. Although he did a wonderful job on bringing out great performances from his actors, a number of his choices just didn’t resonate with me. As I noted above, I found the changes he made in the ending confusing. Additionally, I felt he didn’t bring out sufficient sex and sensuality in the performances. This could just have been a simple fault of the costumes, but rewatching the 1982 segment highlighted the fact that some of it was in the choreography and staging as well. Guido is a man driven by sex and guilt, and that didn’t come across as strong as it should have. Lastly, although I liked the actress and her performance, I felt that Saraghina should have had a different look — larger, earthier, lustier, enjoying life, enjoying sex, enjoying everything. Even casting a smaller women than I saw in my mind, the director should have been able to bring out that lust — but it just didn’t come across.

Modulo that, it was a beautiful production. I just love, love, love some of the music in “Nine“. Songs like “Only With You”, “Unusual Way”, and “Simple” are just so lilting and lovely. Other songs, such as “Folies Bergeres” and “Be Italian”, are great production numbers. The performances told the story well, and some of the performances were simply spectacular. Even with the confusing ending, this is a musical production worth seeing. The movement and dance, staged by Gomez and the Choreographer, Rae Toledo (FB; FB-DIO) is a delight to watch and does what it can to bring out the sex (which is why I think the problem was the costumes). DOMA, once again, demonstrates how a “Broadway” musical can work well, if not better, in the intimate size of an under-99-seat production.

One of the best things about this production is the cast. Going out of order for a minute, I’ll talk about my favorite — the cast with a cast. As Claudia Nardi, Toni Smith (FB; resume) just blew me away. Evidently, she injured her foot at some point, and was dancing with a foot-boot and a cane. These were bejeweled, and she used them to give a wonderful nuance to her character. She demonstrated that one could do conservative movement and still come off as sexy and powerful. Of course, then she opened her mouth and sang. Wow! In her numbers — particularly “Cinema Italiano” and “Unusual Way” — she was just remarkable. This performance is worth seeing for Smith’s performance alone.

Now for the rest of the cast.

Faces. One of the things I noticed about this cast were their faces — expressive, reacting, and demonstrating  (at least to my untrained eye) what acting really is. It is in the small movements that actors connect with their audience. Nowhere was this seen better than in the performance of the lead, David Michael Treviño (FB) as Guido Contini. Watch Treviño’s face during the opening number, or during “I Can’t Make This Movie”. So expressive. This is then topped by a wonderful singing voice that comes across in all of his numbers. Treviño is the center of this show, and he carries it well.

Guido’s heart and solemate — although he doesn’t realize it until too late — is his wife Luisa. Melissa Anjose (FB) is just lovely as Luisa. She has a very strong singing voice, demonstrated in both “My Husband Makes Movies” and “Be On Your Own”, and has a very powerful performance presence. Again, Anjose is someone with a very expressive face that is just a delight to watch as it reacts to the changing situation. The face, to me, is one of those ways I can tell if an actor is living the role vs. playing a part. Anjose is one that seemed to be living her role.

Guido’s mistress, Carla Albanese, was played by Lovlee Carroll (FB), who we last saw as a lead in Xanadu. As with her Kira, initially I was unsure about her based on her look. But again, she gave a performance that was just perfect, especially in songs such as “A Call from the Vatican” and “Simple”.

Guido’s producer, Liliane LaFleur, was portrayed by Emilia Sotelo (FB). She was just a knockout in her production number “Folies Bergeres”, and I also enjoyed her performance at the end as the movie is coming apart. Working with her on the Folies number was Andrea Arvanigian (FB) as Stephanie Necrophorus. Arvanigian got the patter number within “Folies” (“The trouble with Contini…”) and did a very good job with it. I’ll note that Sotelo did what I think was a wonderful ad lib with a 2-year old in the audience about being too young to be at the Folies.

Now we come to Saraghina, who was played by Liza Baron (FB), who we last saw at REP East in “Jewtopia”. For this number, my mind was colored, alas, by the Tony performance. I was expecting someone larger, lustier, and exuding sex. Baron did a great job with what she had — singing well, dancing well, and acting well. Looking back (after a night’s sleep), I think the fault was less the actor and more the staging. Had she been a little more lustily playful with Little Guido, it would have had an entirely different effect. So I enjoyed Baron’s performance, and I’d like to go back and see it again, removing the Tony coloration.

Rounding out the cast were Donovan Baise (Little Guido), Michelle Holmes (FB) (Guido’s Mother), Brittany Rodin (FB) (Our Lady of the Spa), Amy Garbett (FB) (Mama Maddelena), Tania Possick (FB) (Diana), Devin Holliman (FB) (Maria), Ra’Shawn Durell (FB) (Francesco / Cardinal), Victor Mercado (FB) (Renato), and Alex Favela (FB) (Angelo). All were strong — particularly Baise as Little Guido and Holmes as Guido’s mother. As for the rest of the ensemble, they danced, moved, and expressed themselves well (remember, I watch the faces). There were just a few moments with the ensemble where the faces looked more focused on getting the moves right than inhabiting the character; hopefully these will improve as the show is performed more.

Music was provided by an excellent on stage band under the direction of Chris Raymond (FB), who was at the keyboard conducting. Supporting him were Ng Yuhong (FB) (Keyboard 2); Tom Luer (FB) (Reeds 1); Stephen Clothier (Reeds 2); James Blackwell (Trumpet); Antonio Rodrigo (FB) (Bass); and Ben Rose (FB; FB-Fan) (Drums/Percussion).

Turning to the technical. The sound design of David Crawford (FB) was strong and clear, although I was a little unsure why amplification was required. The sound effects worked well, although I was a little confused by some of the background noises. Johnny Ryman (FB)’s lighting design worked well, effectively conveying different moves and highlighting the actors well. The set by Amanda Lawson (FB) worked well given the limitations of the DOMA space — I always enjoy the creativity a black-box theatre forces upon the set designer, making them move from a semi-realistic set that a large theatre with fly-space can accomodate to something that forces the audience to use their imagination to create the place. The set design was supported by the properties work of Hallie Baran (FB). Irvin Jimenez (FB) did the costumes, assisted by Ellie Lynn Follett (FB) [Wardrobe Assistant] and Mayra Jimenez (FB) [Wardrobe Supervisor]. The costumes worked reasonably well, but… I wish they were sexier. Especially when dealing with Italian cinema in the 1960s (the time period of this show), bra straps should not have been visible. There needed to be a little bit more titillation and daring — the most exposing costumes were the bike shorts on the male dancers. I also have the belief that the gift from Guido to Carla should have been sexier — given the dialogue of the song, one expected something extremely risqué, and to get a black dress with a fancy necklace seemed off. This is not to say that the costumes were bad (I particularly enjoyed how Claudia was dressed); rather, I felt that they needed a little something more. Timothy Miller (FB) was the Technical Director, assisted by Steve Mendoza (FB). Danielle DeMasters (FB) was the Production Manager. Nicholas Acciani (FB) was the stage manager, and the house was managed by Edgar Edgerly (FB). Victor Mercado (FB) is the artistic director of DOMA.

Nine – The Musical” continues at DOMA Theatre Company until August 18, 2013. Tickets are available through the DOMA website. They are also on numerous discount sites: LA Stage Alliance, Plays411, and Goldstar. It is well worth seeing.

Dining Notes.  We had dinner before the show down the street at Rinconcito Guatemalteco. The food was very tasty and the prices were great (as for ambiance … this is a dive). Alas, for the bell pepper sensitive, you have to be careful ordering.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  Next week is the only other ticketed show we have in August: “The Apple Tree” at ELATE/Lincoln Stegman]. I haven’t yet figured out what, if anything, we’re seeing for our wedding anniversary weekend. We may also see a show at the Lawrence Welk Resort in Escondido at the end of the month (depending on price), or at another venue in San Diego (I particularly noted a production of “Young Frankenstein” in the park). September may bring Sarah Ruhl’s In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play at the Production Company/Secret Rose (FB) and “Blue Man Group” at the Hollywood Bowl. The middle of the month may bring “The Vagina Monologues” at REP East (FB), and the end definitely sees us back at REP East (FB) for “God of Carnage” (September 28). October 5th brings “Breath and Imagination” at the Colony Theatre (FB), as well as the Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) production of “Kiss Me Kate” at the end of the month (October 26). November will start (hopefully) with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at Actors Rep of Simi (FB), as well as ARTS’s Nottingham Village (FB) (a one-weekend ren-faire-ish market — tickets are now on sale). November will conclude with “Play It Again Sam” at REP East (FB) at the end of the month (November 23), and “Miracle on S. Division Street” at the Colony Theatre (FB).  The fall should also bring a production of “Carrie – The Musical (FB) by Transfer Theatre, but the specific dates have not been announced. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open as the various theatres start making their 2013/2014 season announcements. Lastly, what few dates we do have open may be filled by productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411, or discussed in the various LA Stage Blogs I read (I particularly recommend Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times).