Review: Nine – swimming against the estrogen sea

You really have to admire Pipedream Theatre Project for taking chances.  From last year’s A New Brain to this year’s Nine, this group doesn’t make it easy for themselves, or their audiences.  And despite some issues, when this estrogen filled cast fires on all cylinders there is some real magic taking place on the Performance Works stage.

Inspired by Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical 1963 classic film 8 1/2, Nine tells the story of Guido Contini (Brian McBride), who, on the verge of his 40th birthday, finds himself having a mid-life crisis.  As he attempts to pull himself out of his crisis-induced creative rut to shoot his new film, Guido is forced to deal with a seemingly never-ending past, and present, of romantic entanglements.

There are his wife Luisa (Kathy Fitzpatrick), his mistress Carla (Madeleine Suddaby) and his former protégé Claudia (Britt MacLeod).  Then there are, of course, the other women in his life that helped shape him into what he is today: his mother (Tristin Wayte), his producer Liliane La Fleur (Deborah Allman) and finally, Saraghina (Stephanie Liatopoulos) who, along with his repressed Catholic upbringing, we can trace back as the reason for Guido’s overactive libido.

The women of Nine led by Stephanie Liatopoulos.  Photo by Kristian Guilfoyle.

As one of only two male characters in this production (even his younger self is played by the delightful Lizzie Barry), writers Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston give Guido an almost impossible job of injecting his over-abundant testosterone into an even greater sea of estrogen.  And while McBride does his best, he finds himself swimming against the tide most of the time, never quite making it to shore.

Vocally both Fitzpatrick and Suddaby are top-notch but in the end I found little empathy for their characters with that delicate balance of vulnerability, anger and acceptance missing.  Allman strives to give La Fleur her grand dame status but in what should have been a show-stopper in her “Folies Bergeres” number she was let-down by Director Mackenzie’s decision to not involve the entire female chorus.  Liatopoulos, on the other hand, gets Saraghina right out of the starting gates.  Even with a certain lack of subtlety in her character, I still found myself instantly drawn to her from the amazing opening sequence through to the wonderful “Be Italian”.

Along with Liatopoulos, the best of this production is reserved for one of the largest female ensembles to ever grace a Vancouver stage (Erin Walker, Christina Wells, Ashley Marie Macdonald, Ashley Bishop, Jennifer Doan, Meagan Ekelund, Lauren Gula, Laura Koberstein, Ericka Babins, Javia Selina, Johanna Goosen, Lauren Morrow, Megan Phillips, Michaela Scott, Rebecca Friesen, Shantini Klaassen and Vanessa Coley-Donahue).

Playing the multitudes of women who have had some sort of romantic connection with Guido throughout his forty years, this group of talented women sing, dance and vamp their way through the larger production numbers with style, grace and the obligatory torn stockings.

And it is in these big bold company numbers where this particular production really shines.  From Director Mike Mackenzie’s mesmerizing opening sequence to Choreographer Meagan Ekelund’s very clever and funny “The Germans at the Spa”, this ensemble is up to the challenge.

The costume design team (Zoe Green, Chantelle Balfour, Jui Kang and Christine Quintana) take on the monotone palette from Contini’s black and white films with some well thought out pieces of colour to help accentuate certain scenes.  The hair and make-up team (Ayma Letang, Ashlee Luk, Breanne Peori, Amanda Polak, Alecia Repp, Devon Baker) also deserves special kudos for what is obviously a daunting task in preparing this large female cast for the stage.

Musical Director Kevin Michael Cripps manages to keep his small band in check for the most part in the cavernous Performance Works, although during the quieter numbers there is a tendency to drown out the actors as they are once again without microphones.

For those that wasted time, energy and money on the movie version of Nine, we feel your pain.  But trust us, despite some issues, this Pipedream Theatre Project stage version is molto meglio.

3 1/2 of 5 Stars Nine
Performance Works, Granville Island
2 – 6 June 2010

Based on Fellini’s film 8 1/2, this award-winning musical tells the story of film director Guido Contini as he faces a stalled film project, a complicated love life, and his fortieth birthday. Tickets are $25 – $35 available online at Tickets Tonight.

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