A famous Italian filmmaker, in the throes of midlife crisis, hides out from the world (and his producer) at a renowned Venetian spa, hoping to rekindle his imagination—and his marriage. But his producer descends on him, he’s recognized everywhere, his wife is hounded by reporters ... and he’s surrounded by women who either fawn on him or impugn him. He decides the movie he needs to make will be the musical his producer demands—but of the adventures of Casanova.
If it sounds a little familiar, it’s Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston’s gambit off Fellini’s 8 1/2 for Broadway, Nine, now playing at Contra Costa Civic Theatre, directed and choreographed by Amy Nielson, with musical direction by Joe Simiele.
Derrick Silva plays auteur Guido Contini, Jennifer Stark his long-suffering wife, and not-quite-nine-year-old Trevor Gomez Guido’s boyhood self. In a cast of more than 20 (Contini young and older are the only males), Patricia Pitpitan as Guido’s naughty mistress, Carla, and Sheri Pearl as his mother—the classic Latin female duo—should be mentioned, as should Maggie Tenenbaum as Guido’s leading lady (complaining of always playing the same part, and singing “A Man Like You”), Ali Lane playing hard-nosed producer Liliane La Fleur (who intimidates scriptless Guido into making a musical, then opens up in one of the show’s best production numbers, “Folies Bergères”), Alexis Wong as Stephanie Necrophorus, a Cahiers du Cinema critic with a cigarette holder, and Jessica Magers-Rankin as Sarraghina, the big woman on the beach who teaches little Guido a thing or two—the most Fellini-esque touch, perhaps—in “Ti Volto Bene/Be Italian.”
Typical of good community theater there is the pleasant surprise of seeing familiar faces—so familiar, in fact, that a nun in the show probably took your ticket reservation—Holly Winter, box office manager.
Many complain of how a movie cannot capture a book or play they liked. The opposite can be true as well. It takes all of Kopit’s considerable prowess as a playwright—not to mention Yeston’s songwriter savvy—to keep things moving onstage. Even so, the spa mistress (Jennifer Ekman) is enlisted as occasional narrator, halfway through.
The daydreams, musings, recollections of a filmmaker translated quickly into a montage of sound and image in what probably stands as Fellini’s signature movie, something of a response to the New Wave. The cast at CCCT is good, and there’s much charm in the proceedings, just enough at times to stay ahead of the stasis that can descend like a Sunday afternoon in the middle of nowhere when a stage musical can’t capture the essence of its source’s inspiration. Orson Welles once cannily said that Fellini’s magic lay in his films’ always looking at life through the eyes of a country boy seeing the big city for the first time. There’s no parallel to that perceptiveness in Nine; all we have to go on is everybody’s assertion that Guido’s a genius—Guido included—and a lot of Ragu drenching the pasta fazool.
Yet CCCT relies, as usual, on the genuine enthusiasm of the cast, who make the play their own, with Nielson and Simiele’s direction, the tuneful octet behind the scenes—and the scenes themselves, designed, as so often, by Matt Flynn with stylish grace. And that’s what it takes—as Carla sings to Guido: “Simple.”
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through March 8 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre, 951 Pomona Ave., El Cerrito. $24. $15, age 16 and under. 524-9132. www.ccct.org.