Review : 'Nine' at the Westport Community Theatre

Tara Kennedy

Nine was a show that I had always been curious to see. Based on Federico Fellini’s film 8 ½, it centers on Guido Contini, an Italian filmmaker, and the multiple women in his life. A show with multiple roles to showcase female talent seemed like an opportunity not to be missed to create a musical theater piece.

However, through no fault of the Westport Community Theatre, this musical is strange and disjointed. To be fair, I have never seen Fellini’s film that this show is based on, and maybe it works better as a film than it does as a musical.  Loosely based on a biography of Fellini, the story of a filmmaker, Guido Contini, and his internal struggle with aging and juggling women seems tired and dated, especially when you learn he is only turning 40 (full disclosure: I’m 42). If you’re going to pull off this show well, you need a strong performer to play the leading role and luckily Westport does have a formidable performer in Bennett Pologe.  

Photo: WCT

Photo: WCT

Mr. Pologe’s performance as a narcissist whose ego is wrapped up in his ability to manipulate the women in his life is energetic and charismatic. These elements are essential if the audience is to feel empathy for the self-centered filmmaker, and he is successful in that portrayal. The contrived plot driver is that he is trying to complete his promised script for his demanding producer, Liliane La Fleur (Donna McLaughlin-Wyant), all while attempting to balance the relationships with the women around him: a modern-day Casanova.  Early in the show, he is beautifully conducting the women in a chorus– literally (“Coda di Guido”). By the end of the show, he is contemplating suicide, only to be saved by his younger self (Nicholas Ferreira) as life being all part of the growing process (“Getting Tall”). It is a wide range of emotions to run through, and Mr. Pologe showcases all of these emotions well.  

The main women showcased in Guido’s life are his mother, his wife, his mistress, and his muse.

The one woman who Guido cannot control – and doesn’t necessarily want to – is his mother (Lucia Palmieri). Ms. Palmieri’s commanding presence and full, beautiful voice make it easy for the audience to see why she is Guido’s rock, even from the afterlife.   Her “Guarda La Luna” was a beautiful opening to the show.

Guido’s wife, Luisa (Beth Bria), struggles with her obvious love for Guido and how it used to be before fame occupied their daily lives (“My Husband Makes Movies”). Ms. Bria’s passionate performance comes through with her anger at Guido at her perception that he is mocking their life by putting their seemingly intimate moments into his latest script (“Be on Your Own”).

Guido’s mistress, Carla (Josie Bielmeier), is a playful blonde who uses her sexual wiles to keep Guido’s interest (“A Call from the Vatican”). She too is married and wants both she and Guido to divorce their current spouses and marry each other. When Carla’s husband finally grants her a divorce, Guido dismisses her and it’s more than she can bear (“Simple”). The juxtaposition of her slumped, dejected figure on stage with the filming of the bright, vibrant costumes of Guido’s latest movie, conveys her pain at being cast aside.

Guido’s muse, Claudia Nardi (Betsy Simpson), is an actress who has starred in Guido’s movies; also she is involved with Guido on an emotional level. No matter how you feel about the show, Ms. Simpson is the reason you should stay for the duration of the performance. Her voice is all at once uplifting and chilling as she sings of her conflicting feelings for Guido (“Unusual Way”).  Her classical soprano soars and is the highlight of the show.

Again, this is no fault of the performers, but some of the musical numbers were awkward and didn’t advance the plot at all. “The Germans at the Spa” made no sense to me: where were the Germans besides the lead spa worker and what did this have to do with the story (incidentally this number wisely was cut in the 2003 revival)? Another odd number, “Be Italian,” while providing lively choreography involving tambourines and a lustful performance by Sarraghina (Karen Hanley), seemed to be in the show only to demonstrate the stereotypical hyper-sexuality of Italians, which is unnecessary given Guido’s many amours. What made it even more uncomfortable? The presence of children in the number. 

Despite the material, director Mark S. Graham does an admirable job leading the cast in telling the story. The small orchestra of four (two keyboard players, a violinist, and a flute/ reed player) was one of the best I have heard in the community theater scene in years. The simple set and lighting design successfully create the feeling of an Italian spa in a black box theater space.  

If this a favorite show of yours, there are moments not to be missed in this production. For me, it wasn’t this rendering of the work that was the issue: the musical for me was forced, dated, and fatigued. With the elements of success I saw in this production, I look forward to seeing other plays and musicals by the Westport Community Theatre.