Spinning Tree’s “Nine,” an American Musical Born of Italian Cinema, Showcases Talent and Hard Work

“Nine,” the 1982 Broadway musical nominally based on Federico Fellini’s surrealistic satire, “8 1/2,” is enjoyable to the extent that you can relate to the protagonist, a self-absorbed Italian film director undergoing a midlife crisis.

In the Spinning Tree Theatre production now onstage at the Living Room, film maker Guido Contini is played by Vigthor Zophoniasson, a charismatic actor and an excellent singer. The hard-working Zophoniasson holds the show together — although you do have to suspend certain brain functions as you watch a red-haired actor from Iceland play a role originated on screen by the personification of ‘60s Italian cool, Marcello Mastroianni.

Zophoniasson never leaves the stage as Contini, a director faced with a looming production deadline but no coherent script to shoot. As he thrashes about for an idea, he reflects on and struggles with his relationships with women from his past and present. They include his wife Luisa (Lauren Braton), his lover Carla Albanese (Leah Swank-Miller), an actress and former lover, Claudia Nardi (Taylor Harvey), his mother (Judy Simmons), his French film producer, Liliane La Fleur (Angela Hagenbach), and Stephanie Necrophorus (Devon Barnes), a harsh film critic who is now an associate producer on his movie.

Director Michael Grayman stages the show simply, employing chairs and minimal props on a bare stage backed by black curtains. Andrew Parkhurst is credited with musical staging. Music director Gary Green performs the entire score on solo piano, with an assist from Pamela Baskin-Watson, who handles some of the treble piano lines when Green literally has his hands full. The show plays well in the intimate Living Room space.

Zophoniasson plays Guido with feverish intensity, the kind of performance you often see in musicals. It’s also opposite to the ironic detachment of Fellini and his alter-ego, Mastroianni. It might be best to simply forget about the movie while you’re watching “Nine,” which is its own animal.

The key performances are solid, but most impressive is Swank-Miller, who as Carla transitions from flirtatious comedy to kiife-in-the-heart pathos when Guido shatters her fantasies of a future life with him. As played by Swank-Miller, Carla is the only truly convincing character on stage.

Braton brings her customary poise and polish to the chilly Luisa. Hagenbach, a respected jazz singer trying her hand at musical theater, makes an agreeable impression as Liliane and owns “Folies Bergeres,” a song in Act 1 that comes as close to a show-stopper as any number in the show. Barnes has some nice comic moments as Stephanie and Judy Simmons brings surprising depth to the role of Guido’s mom.

Ryan Tucker makes a larger-than-life impression as Sarraghina, a flamboyant prostitute Guido meets when he’s just a kid. Harvey is a good singer but seems a little flat as Claudia. Ashley Personett, looking icy, sexy and a little scary, is an indelible presence as Lina Darling, an ensemble role. Callie Fabac and Devyn Trondson round out the ensemble. And on Saturday Young Guido was played by Marshall Jones, one of two child actors alternating in the role.

Maury Yeston’s score tries hard to be sophisticated and at times employs mesmerizing harmonies. His score doesn’t yield any hum-it-on-the-way-home hits, maybe because his intent was to write to character and serve the material. There are, nevertheless, a few musical moments that stand out. One is the Claudia/Guido duet that kicks off Act 2. The estimable playwright Arthur Kopit wrote the book.

The title of Fellini’s 1963 movie reflected his output to that point as a director — six features and three short films. This show, counting itself as another “half,” rounds to the title up to “Nine.” But the title is significant in another way. It represents the age in childhood where Guido is stuck emotionally. Guido’s journey in the show is essentially an excruciating, masochistic exercise which in the end seems to have some therapeutic value to him.

My problem is that I couldn’t buy into Guido’s angst. Fellini was a genius who could draw audiences into his surrealistic fantasies with a sense of ironic detachment. This stage show, by comparison, is an earnest effort to translate the film into stage terms. The result, however, is laborious and lacking the audacious whimsy of the original.

Not all theatergoers will feel that way. But some might.

“Nine” runs through Nov. 20 at the Living Room, 1818 McGee St. Call  816-569-5277 or go to spinningtreetheatre.com.

About The Author: Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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