February 01, 1998


Music and Lyrics by Maury Yeston,
Book by Arthur Kopit.
Directed by John Diedrich
Festival Theatre

It is now twenty five years since Federico Fellini’s 81/2 was first released. A film about a filmmaker making a film, it is bizarre, narcissistic, sexist and cinematically fearless. 81/2 remains a classic not least for the performances by Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale and Anouk Aimee.

Nine is more than fractionally different from 81/2. Despite some good songs and the occasional clever lyric it is somehow inert, still at the good idea stage. That is, if it is a good idea to make a stage musical about bourgeois satyriasis. Writers Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit, with translator Mario Fratti have, it seems, created a brainy show without very much thought.

There’s Guido Contini in the middle of the stage, surrounded by twenty one women, singing that his body is nearing middle age and his mind is nearing ten. You have to be careful with that or an audience might think they’ve wandered into Wife Begins at Forty after all. Given the dessicated state of Yeston and Kopit’s writing, for Nine to have gathered all those Tonys in 1982, the New York version must have depended heavily on Tommy Tune’s production and Raoul Julia’s lead performance to give it some style as well as some juice.

John Diedrich’s production, despite an able cast, the orchestra under Conrad Helfrich and Roger Kirk’s natty costumes, fails to be greater than some of its cleverer parts. Desporting on the twin staircases of Shaun Gurton’s restrictive aluminium and steely pink set, the chorus often look like a listless fashion parade, while scenes which call for a real burst of energy – such as when Guido is shooting a scene for his movie – lack purpose and imagination. Since it is its hectic filmic invention that makes 81/2 more than just another auteur’s show-and-tell, Diedrich’s production is by contrast awkward and self conscious. And Fellini’s fetish for whores with eighteen carat hearts, which recurs in movies from 81/2 through to Roma and Amarcord, has a dry prurience in Nine.

Fellini’s sexual disgust·and fascination, doubtless keeps his therapist in regular skiing holidays but at least it has the force of Rabelaisian confession -whereas the bumps and grinds by Jackie Rees as Carla and Caroline Gillmer as Sarmaghina are graceless and derisive. Diedrich’s performance as Guido Contini is likeable but insufficient. This show, like the movie, is so far steeped in male egotism that there’s no way you can do it like a singing mountie. Diedrich’s scruples about the fact that Contini is a weak philanderer can have no place in the show as such. Instead we need to see what it is about the potency and allure of movies that makes Guido such a culture hero and why producer Lilane La Aeur (a good performance by Nancye Hayes but not her best) wants to throw money all over him.

The show itself gives these matters only passing thought. Certainly Maria Mercedes, who gives a promising portrayal of Luisa, Guido’s longsuffering wife, is not given much to work with in songs such as My Husband Makes Movies – her Stand-by-your-Best- Boy anthem. When she later leaves him, along with Claudia Nardi, his protege (stylishly played by Peta Toppano) Guido regresses to mother (Gerda Nicolson) and childhood (with Jamie Wright as Young Guido).

Unfortunately the show then pivots on not-enough as Guido, desolate, suicidal, his emotional and professional life in the blender, is coaxed back into lights and action by little Guido plaintively singing – “knowing you have no one if you try to have them all/ is part of tying shoes/ starting school, scraping knees if you should fall/ part of growing tall.” Really.

By invoking the movies, particularly Fellini’s, and by seeming to deal seriously with questions of personal relationship and the creative mind, Nine invites expectations which it disappoints. For that reason it is hard to fall back to saying that it’s OK in parts.

Even though the original show is probably a three pea trick anyway, John Diedrich’s production, like his own performance, is short of the mark. For Nine to be the ultimate musical it claims to be, it would need to add up to more than this.

“Nein” The Adelaide Review, No.47, February, 1988, p.30.

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