A musical for a Golden Age of Buffalo Theater
By Anthony Chase
When I began my career as a drama critic, I was mindful of several maxims.
Blossom Cohan, late great publicist for the old Studio Arena Theatre warned me that “Critics eventually become jaded!”
Blossom was seldom wrong, but that hasn’t happened to me. Tears still stream down my face during moments of theatrical beauty – tragic or comic. Even seeing a downright turkey does not feel like a waste of my time; I love the theater and theatrical disasters intrigue me. I still love to be amazed, or challenged, or disturbed in the theater. I love original, even outrageous takes on familiar plays.
I am having a very good week.
It seems clear to me that Buffalo Theater is enjoying a Golden Age. The offerings are abundant and generally of excellent quality. (Okay, it could be more diverse, but that means we have room to grow and the best is yet to come!)
This week we saw a brilliant rendering of Joe Orton’s 1964 classic, Entertaining Mr. Sloane at Irish Classical; a disturbing and polarizing new play by Gordon Farrell, Girls Who Walked on Glass, staged as an immersive experience at Alleyway; The Seat Next to the King, an insightful Canadian play about American gay politics at New Phoenix; A Time to Kill, a racially charged courtroom drama at a suburban dinner theater; and finally, Second Generation Theatre’s fresh and irresistible production of Nine, a musical adaptation of Federico Fellini’s film, 8 ½ .
In recent months we’ve seen Ujima inaugurate a fabulous new space on the West Side with a brilliant production of Passing Strange; not to mention Road Less Traveled after being tossed about, moving into a marvelous new theater downtown, and the transitions of theaters from founding leadership to their next chapter. All that, and the dust has barely settled on MusicalFare’s astonishingly wonderful staging of Fun Home, and our summer of Shakespeare in Delaware Park is set to kick off with The Tempest.
Today, I am thinking about Nine, a show with which I am well familiar, produced by a company with a name that reflects the gradual growth of Buffalo’s theater community across generations.
NINE at Second Generation Theatre
I have seen Nine about 30 times, including the original Broadway production and the 2003 revival.
Oddly, I also have a solid background in that era of Italian Cinema when Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Luchino Visconti were all working simultaneously. In fact, when I arrived in Buffalo in 1981, I was coming directly from Rome, where I had been studying Italian cinema; poking around Cinecittà Studios; spending time at the late Pasolini’s amazing house where his sister hosted us; on the set of Liliana Cavani’s film, La pelle, and hanging out with Bernardo Bertolucci’s brother, filmmaker Giuseppe Bertolucci, who had just finished making Oggetti smarriti, and who winced when people referred to “Bertolucci,” and meant his brother.
When Nine opened on Broadway in 1982, I was very conscious of the show’s roots in Italian cinema and had even had a brush with Mario Fratti, author of the original book which moved the action of 8 ½ to a spa in Venice against the backdrop of the filming of Fellini’s Casanova. (His friend Katharine Hepburn intervened with Fellini personally to secure rights for a musical adaptation by Fratti and Maury Yeston. Eventually Arthur Kopit would write a new book).
Of all the filmmakers of the period, Fellini was the least consciously political, and therefore, ironically, the most traditional. In other words, he was the most prone to support middle class Italian values, including traditional gender roles. Having spent his formative years in the fascist era, experiences reflected in his film, Amarcord, complicated this.
Elements of Fellini that made 8 ½ particularly fertile source material for Broadway include the blurring of (and tension between) illusion and reality, innocence and experience, history and myth in his work. In addition, the infantile dilemma of a man whose body’s clearing forty as his mind is nearing ten taps into Fellini’s nostalgia for childhood and the oft celebrated phenomenon of perpetual adolescence among Italian men, which in turn, links to the fetishizing of unattainable women. Nowhere do cultures privilege the mother/son relationship more powerfully than in the Roman Catholic countries of the Mediterranean! All this fetishizing, privileging, marginalizing, and categorizing of women creates myriad confusion and fodder for Fellini who revels in the relations but never probes their complexities too deeply.
It was director Tommy Tune who conceived of the idea to surround Guido with women in the musical. With Guido as the hub, women radiate out and revolve around him like spokes on a wheel. Women motivate every scene of the plot.
The structure of the show is simple. Great film director Guido Contini has signed a contract to make a film but has reached a moment of artistic stagnation. His inability to fulfill this film contract is mirrored by his inability to fulfill his marriage contract; he is inattentive and unfaithful. In the opening scene, his wife, Luisa, here played by Aimee Walker, suggests that they should divorce.
Guido’s attempts at Freudian self-examination never manage to be more than superficial. He is too self-absorbed to see past himself. In a naïve gesture, he decides to go to a spa in Venice with Luisa to rejuvenate both his creativity and his marriage. Naturally, the two objectives become blurred and pull Guido apart. (If you didn’t want to be recognized, asks Luisa, why didn’t we go to a spa that is less well known?)
Guido’s world descends upon the Venetian spa, both physically and through his memories, one woman at a time.
Carla, his girlfriend arrives, played by Kelly Copps, intent on divorcing her husband and marrying Guido. Liliane La Fleur, his producer arrives, played by Lisa Ludwig, determined to extract a script from the struggling director. Claudia, the star of his previous films and his muse, arrives, played by Arianne Davidow.
In the realm of memory, Guido’s mind is invaded by thoughts of Saraghina, a hedonistic woman who initiated the boys at Saint Sebastian School into the idea of sex, played by Nicole Cimato; and by his mother, the middle-class embodiment of the Blessed Mother, played by Mary Gjurich.
Each woman is introduced in a musical episode. These begin as large and theatrical, before leading up to the hauntingly melodious and dramatically powerful songs of Act II.
Designed by Chris Cavanagh, the set for this production is a handsome playing area with symmetrical classical lines that can be a spa bath or a Folies Bergère stage. The Smith Theatre is a wide and arguably awkward arena for a large musical, and to be frank, Nine does not fit here as neatly as Second Generation’s previous show, Big Fish, did. While the show plays outward, as if through a proscenium, the audience hugs around to the sides, meaning some seats are certainly better than others. Still, in such an intimate setting, none is exactly bad. I was situated perfectly. The symmetry of the setting clearly establishes that every number is sung by or to Guido, and that the stage is a frame for his life and (to quote the lyrics) a tale of sound and fury that some idiot went and told.
The production, under the direction of Victoria Perez, with choreography by Lauren Alaimo, and music direction by Allan Paglia, establishes its bold theatricality immediately. The rising momentum through the opening sequence is thrilling, and when it finally comes to its climax, the robust applause reminded me of similar coups de théâtre at Second Generation Theatre in shows like Into the Woods, Light in the Piazza and Big Fish. This company always tries to project the feeling that you are present at something very special, as if each individual show is a singular gift. As a result, quibbling over the details can seem knit picky. The general gesture of the show is, inarguably, sublime, if not without minor and forgivable stumbles.
The opening staging, choreographed elegantly by Alaimo, tosses Guido, played by Ben Michael Moran, through space like a doll, and deploys the women like shifting patterns of human lace, an effect augmented by Lise Harty’s excellent costumes. Beginning with the wordless “Overture Delle Donne” sung by the female company, the sequence leads into the expository “Not Since Chaplin,” and finally, explodes into “Guido’s Song,” establishing the star status of Guido, and in this case, of Ben Michael Moran, personally.
Ben Michael Moran.
Moran is a powerhouse: charismatic, energetic, and graceful. He sings expressively, and while his performance of his opening song is playful and comic, it also allows him to project the masculine vulnerability that makes Guido irresistible to impulses that are alternately maternal and, shall we say, libidinal. (And not for nothing, he’s never looked more handsome, which is saying a lot!)
Moran delivers a star turn, and a star turn is what this role, previously played by such men as Raul Julia, Sergio Franchi, and Antonio Banderas, requires. This is an extraordinary performance.
Aimee Walker plays Guido’s wife, Luisa. This is an emotionally demanding role (it’s the character played by Anouk Aimée in 8 ½). While Luisa is clearly “the” love of Guido’s life, she is not “the only” love his life, and her reaction to this realization is a combination of anger and hurt. Walker communicates the former more pointedly than the latter. Her rendition of “My Husband Makes Movies” is the show’s first soulful number and skillfully establishes Luisa as the traditional devoted wife of a famous man, smoothing over his trespasses, even when those trespasses trample her very soul. Guido’s song, “Only You,” seems to trivialize his extra marital affairs, or at least to minimize their importance to the women who are caught in their triangulations, giving Walker, Copps, and Davidow the motivation they need to land the emotional wallop of their later songs. By Act II, Yeston will hand Luisa the defiant “Be On Your Own” in which she banishes Guido from her life, to be followed “Long Ago” in which she recounts their lives together.
The complexity of the lyrics given to Luisa suggests that a nuanced interpretation of the character is required: “I’ll soon relieve you of your pain / When I set you free. / If that is all you wish to have, then I agree. / No need for thanks, your just rewards will be my fee. / Go off and live your petty fictions / Full of blatant contradictions you can’t see.”
With her final stab, of course, Luisa slays both Guido and herself: “And you’ll take with you all you own / From A to Z / And all of me.”
The tension between anger and hurt, between hating Guido and loving him, could not be more piercing. Walker gives a clear and vivid performance of the role, which is the most difficult in the show.
By contrast, the other women, fulfilling symbolic functions in Guido’s life, are broad cabaret turns, brimming with delicious opportunity that does not go unexploited.
As we progress through the action of Act I, Charmagne Chi deftly navigates the always problematic “The Germans at the Spa” swiftly and entertainingly, establishing the shifting setting of the play’s action while goofing on German tourists in Italy. Unlike any other number of the show, this one is not about Guido. (Back in 1982 I had vivid memories of German tourists in Italy, but the joke doesn’t really travel that well). The number was cut from the 2003 Broadway revival. Still, Chi as always, blazes a dynamic and bright path. She and her company of Spa Girls and German tourists give the number an entertaining go.
Lisa Ludwig scores decisively as Liliane La Fleur, former Follies star turned producer. Sporting a perfect period Parisian hairstyle and chic attire, her every entrance (and exit) is impactful. She slays the Folies Bergère number, in which she explains to Guido her idea of entertainment, using the opportunity to wow the audience with her talent and to work the crowd in search of the mysterious stranger who has left a gift without signing his name.
Mary Gjurich is the embodiment of maternal love as Guido’s mother, and provides affecting import to the show’s title song.
Sabrina Kahwaty transforms herself to play Robespierre, critic for “Cahiers du Cinema,” who is enlisted to assist, or assassinate Guido. She has the rapid patter down pat.
Leah Berst is perfection as Lady of the Spa, a role that merely requires her to sing gloriously.
In a production that does not have a cadre of nine-year-old boys cavorting on the beach, but just one – played adorably by Max Goldhirsch — the casting of Nicole Cimato as Saraghina is a physical contrast to previous productions, or the film. While other Saraghinas have been zaftig, Cimato is petite. The choice invites us to reimagine the show’s most famous number, “Be Italian.” Cimato delivers with an energetic and life-affirming anthem to unapologetic pleasure with joyful choreography by Alaimo.
Arianne Davidow is sublime as movie star, Claudia, Guido’s muse who has outgrown him. Her performance of “Unusual Way,” one of the most glorious Broadway songs of the 1980s, is poignant and superb. As we see Davidow assay more leading lady roles, she impossibly seems to get better and better.
The gold standard for “Carla,” the girlfriend that Guido has difficulty leaving, was Anita Morris, whose original performance of “A Call from the Vatican” was a sensation. She writhed and clawed at the floor with a performance so unbridled that she wasn’t allowed to perform the number at the Tony Awards. Oddly, the inspiration for the performance in this production would seem to be Jane Krakowski’s trapeze performance from 2003, in which she propelled from the ceiling on sheet-like aerial silks. The Smith Theatre lacks the height to pull this off, making the moment look or like “the girl in the swing,” and encumbers, rather than assists Kelly Copps who could totally sell this number without gimmicks. Still, Copps is appealing as Carla, and sings a moving rendition of “Simple,” a song that underplays the passion of falling in love, and the pain of saying goodbye.
At the heart of it all, of course, is Guido, and this production boasts as fine a performance in the role as you could ever hope to see. Moran glides through the evening with passion and versatility, singing expressively, dancing, clowning, and even suffering with conviction and versatility.
The film ends with Guido, death averted, leading the characters into a circus tent for a communal dance. At the final moment, he reaches his hand out to his wife, Luisa, who hesitates for a moment, but then takes it, joining him in the celebration. In the musical, Guido reaches the point of desperation and contemplates suicide, but then his nine-year old self sings to him, telling him that it is time to grow up and to move on. I will stop right there, lest I spoil the rest for everyone. Let me just say that the musical fulfills the hope, joy, and sentimentality of the film, as does the Second Generation production. This is a magnificently satisfying evening of musical theater.