Front Row Centre’s Nine doesn’t equal 8Ω

By Jordyn Marcellus

First impressions are vitally important to any film or theatre project. If you can’t grab your audience, hook them into the story and make the audience identify with the characters, the entire production falls apart. Unfortunately, Front Row Centre’s 2007-08 season opener, Nine, has an opening scene that confuses, annoys and leaves a bad impression that cannot be undone by a wonderfully playful second act.

Guido Contini (named after Guido Anselmi in the film 8½, who is himself the thinly-veiled portrait of Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini) travelling to a spa with his wife Luisa (Allison Roth) in an attempt to beat out his director’s block and save his marriage. Unfortunately, his mistress (Ashlyn Peneycad) follows him as well. What’s more, his French producer finds him at the spa and forces him to make a film–which he decides to make a bodice-ripper based upon the story of Casanova, casting all the people at the spa to play roles in his film. He then re-tells the story of Casanova, bringing back his beloved protege Claudia for one last shot at rekindling his romance with her.

A major complaint is the opening scene of the play. The scene is meant to be indicative of the confusing, mixed-up existence of Guido Contini (or Fellini) as women flirt and suggestively talk about him and his genius. It starts off simply with Luisa and Carla talking about him, mixing in their native Italian as each one describes their relationship with him. This would be fine if it were just the two characters. Unfortunately, more and more come and give their speeches, twirling around Guido and as they sing and talk in English, Italian, French and German. It becomes harder to both hear and understand what each character is saying in the mess–sometimes, characters are talking in English and we should be listening to what they say, but it’s impossible to understand with the cacophony of gibberish.

Despite the rough opening, the play picks up with the Sarraghina musical number near the end of act one. It’s a fantastically fun sequence where the wild-haired Sarraghina (Nicole Owen) teaches three children how to love like the Italians. It leads into the second act, when Guido’s film is in production. Half of the second act is a rip-roaring faux costume drama with quick costume changes, witty dialogue, and farcical elements as Guido re-tells the first act in his own weird, wonderful, wacky way. It’s joyous, amusing and excessively fun, but cannot make up for the miserable first act.

One of the major flaws of Nine is actually a technical issue: it’s incredibly hard to hear the actors. Because of the acoustics of the Pumphouse Theatre and because none of the actors have microphones apart from one child, it becomes hard to hear one single voice over the chorus. This is especially problematic when the actors have to sing in the lower registers–the soprano chorus just powers over the lower voices and it becomes impossible to hear their dialogue, particularly when delivered in rapid-fire.

One of the major complaints that some people have about community theatre productions is that they are woefully amateur in comparison to companies like Alberta Theatre Projects or Theatre Calgary. Normally, this is unfounded. Some of the best productions are actually the ones that come from the community instead of professionals. Unfortunately, Nine has some slip-ups that make the production seem slapdash and amateurish. Before the play started, the cast and crew were casually chatting backstage. Because of the logistics of the Pumphouse Theatre, the audience could overhear these conversations easily, which smacks of unprofessionalism. Secondly, the entire production feels rushed–from the awkward bows, to the clanging and banging behind the stage, it feels like the actors were in need of two more weeks of rehearsal time to really nail it down pat.

Simply put, these problems are the products of poor directing. Nine has won two major Tony Awards: one in 1982 for best musical and another in 2003 for best revival of a musical. But in the hands of director Colleen Bishop, the script feels awkward and unsure. The pacing is stuttering and character arcs feel haphazard and inconclusive. There are some supposedly very serious moments that end up being amusing because of poor director choices–at the end, the entire chorus comes out dressed in white, in comparison to their previous attire of all-black. This is wildly funny, due to the extremely hokey nature of the choice. This kind of unfortunate cloying sentimentality only further smacks of community theatre–a poor choice steeped in sentimentality that is only meant to tug at the heartstrings for no other reason than being steeped in sentimentality.

Friends and family can go and enjoy Nine. As long as you don’t expect a masterpiece of theatre and instead drop your standards and can grimace through the first act, you’ll be able to enjoy yourself. Otherwise, don’t bother making the trek to go see Nine and instead stay inside and watch 8½ instead.

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