Perhaps in 1963, when Federico Fellini made his semi-autobiographical 8 ½, the movie on which the musical Nine is based, people cared more about a famous film director's struggle to overcome creative block. Perhaps there was a slight thrill of voyeurism in speculating on Fellini's relationships; perhaps, unlike Nine, the film focused as much on the creative process as on one man's satyriasis; perhaps it was worth scanning all that moody black-and-white photography just to watch gorgeous, world-weary Marcello Mastroianni do his stuff with some of the world's most beautiful women (now, there's a man who knew how to "Be Italian," as one of the best songs in the musical exhorts a quartet of little boys). But Arthur Kopit's script for Nine is empty at the core, just a chronicle of the shenanigans of an incorrigible narcissist and the women who inexplicably love him, and it's hard to find any emotional foothold in it. Failing which, we look for style and elegance, evocative choreography and some eroticism to get us through. Alas, director Rod A. Lansberry doesn't provide any of this in the Arvada Center's production.
Guido Contini, under deadline pressure and enduring a midlife crisis at the age of forty, trundles off to a chic spa in search of inspiration. A bevy of women appears, some of them actual, some remembered. There's the prostitute Sarraghina, who introduced him to the pleasures of the body when he was nine; his wife, Luisa, who puts up with all his infidelities until (at least that's what seems to set her off; as staged, the scene wasn't entirely clear) she finds him about to perform cunnilingus on the mistress she's known about all along; the mistress herself, Carla; his beautiful muse, Claudia Nardi; and — of course — his sainted Mother, who doesn't get an actual name of her own. The women do a lot of suggestive posing around the set. Guido muses tunefully on his predicament and evokes the little boy within, who periodically appears. (Anyone remember the inner child, invoked so incessantly during the therapy- and self-obsessed 1980s, whom we all hoped would someday either disappear or grow up?) We get scenes between Guido and each woman in turn; a frantic sequence by his grasping producer; sarcasm from a female critic, who calls his films "emotionally inane"; flashbacks to his mother; a big blowup with Luisa; and an unconvincing happy ending.
The production is marred by a lot of appallingly hammy acting and a slew of terrible Italian accents. The theme is sex, but almost no one is actually sexy. The saving grace is that Lansberry has found a number of truly wonderful singing voices — though the sound system here tends to flatten out and coarsen sound at a certain register. Randal Keith's Guido isn't particularly subtle or complex — I don't think the script allows for that — but Keith is a strong on-stage presence, and his singing is absolutely terrific. Other amazing voices belong to Susan Long, as Guido's Mother, and Anna Hanson, who plays Carla. Shaking her tangled locks, whamming away with the tambourine, Beth Flynn is a fierce, uncontrollable force of nature as Sarraghina. The most delightful performance is that of Jennifer deDominici as Claudia. She's beautiful and wistful, but there's also a semi-submerged wicked-urchin quality that reminds me of Gilda Radner. DeDominici gives the most sincere performance of the evening, and she sings like an angel; her duet with Keith, "A Man Like You/In a Very Unusual Way," is the gentle high point of an otherwise flat affair.