BWW Review: Be Sexy, Be Alluring, Be ITALIAN! with UCO's NINE
The Tony Award-winning musical NINE is a throwback, reminiscent of a world full of glitz and glamour. Debuting on Broadway in 1982, and based in 1960s Italy, it's a classic large-scale musical that has long been overlooked. Luckily, UCO's College of Fine Arts and Design has brought it out of the shadows and into the lights with their current production at Mitchell Hall Theatre. Nine is based on an earlier film by Federico Fellini, 8 ½. The semi-autobiographical story follows an Italian filmmaker in the throes of a mid-life crisis.
The imaginative, slightly eccentric, and robustly charming Guido Contini is turning forty. His wife Luisa has asked for a divorce, and he's stuck with writer's block. Unable to come up with a script for his next movie, and less than 24 hours before the film crew shows up, Guido escapes with Luisa to a spa in Venice. Unfortunately, his fame follows him, and he's quickly discovered. Also following him are the women in his life. They plague him both physically and mentally, driving him crazy as he desperately grasps for a spark of creativity. He's nothing without a plot, and Guido wrestles with his demons by imagining elaborate song and dance routines, like any filmmaker would do.
UCO Alum and New York based actor Ryan Steer returns to play Guido. Partially arrogant, partially tortured, and all sexy, Steer gives an emotional and stunning performance. Steer has beautiful lines when he dances, and it's hard to decide whether he's a better dancer or singer. He's full of wit and imagination as Guido, and the best aspect of his performance is how he shares the stage. The women of Nine are the true stars, and Steer shines along with them, never stealing the spotlight. Steer absolutely worships the women in his life, bowing to his knees, kissing them, and loving on them with his whole body. Guido is a ladies' man, and his love for the Feminine is why he's in this predicament.
Steer opens the show with a silhouetted, cigarette smoke-clouded stroll on stage and it sets the scene for a breathtaking two hours. Director Greg White proves from the opening scene that he's made terrific choices for this role.
Skylar Hemenway is Guido's long-suffering wife Luisa. Hemenway is dainty, but she's no waif. Clad in black like the rest of the cast, and adding pearls and sunglasses, she invokes a Jacqueline Kennedy-esque stylized look that's perfect for her. Hemenway has a quiet strength. Her marriage is on the rocks, but she knows all eyes are on her. She's smart, not falling for Guido's lies and deceptions. She stands to be hurt by him the most, but keeps her tough exterior.
Sierra Sikes is Carla, Guido's longtime lover who's desperate for his attention. Sikes is a temptress, a broken woman with needs that aren't being met. She's seductive and sensual, and it's easy to see why Guido continues to hold a candle for her. When she tracks him down at the spa, calling him to beg for a visit, Guido imagines this conversation as it takes place. The routine that accompanies involves Sikes suspended from the ceiling in an elaborate and graceful aerial number. She grasps two pieces of fabric and swings and flips in various maneuvers. Soon Steer joins her, and together they're entangled in a passionate dance. Choreographed by Alana Murray and Hui Cha Poos, this scene has the audience breathless.
Sophie Mings is Claudia, the star of Guido's films and his one true muse. Her relationship with Guido is complicated. She loves him, but he's destroyed her. Mings proves to be the turning point. Once Guido loses her, he can't hold onto the façade anymore. Mings is heartbreaking, forlon, and beautiful. She stands on the beach with Steer and together they create a scene that belongs on the cover of a romance novel. Mings conveys the deep emotional turmoil that Claudia is in. Her entire career has been playing the same role over and over for Guido, and she can't do it anymore. Mings brings out the best in Guido, and it takes its toll on her in this genuine and honest performance.
Mica Martinez is Guido's mother. She's angelic as she gives Guido advice from her heavenly position. Martinez sounds much like an Italian Opera singer as she belts out her song to Guido. She's a composed and sweet mother to him. She is his voice of reason, reminding him of the innocence he lost long ago.
Mary Brozina-Wierick is Liliane La Fleur. The French movie producer and former Show Girl is having none of Guido's stall tactics. Brozina-Wierick is intense and controlled, then cuts loose as she explains what she wants from Guido. She's perhaps the only one who's not susceptible to Guido's charms. Together with Caprie Gordon as her assistant Lina, Brozina-Wierick gives Guido a dose of reality and makes his heart race in a whole new way.
Stephanie Necrophorus is played by Odra Chapman, a critic who also gives Guido a run for his money. Chapman proves the hardest to please, and her brutal criticism puts Steer in a compromising position. Chapman is impressively unimpressed, a cool, intelligent woman who simply cannot be swayed. She puts the hurt on Steer in lusty and thrilling ways.
Madison Eckerson is articulate as Mama Maddelena, the career-minded maven who runs the spa. Eckerson gets the employees prepared for a visit from some German customers, and the ladies in her employ "brush up" on their skills. Eckerson is a force, with a lovely voice and a blonde bombshell look.
Sarah Royse is Our Lady of the Spa, a Hostess who greets Guido and Luisa. Royse has got legs for days, possibly even weeks. She's a striking sight on stage, with talent to spare, and she's the very image of luxury. Royse works hard throughout the show, with several turns in the ensemble as well. She's one to watch for and hard to take your eyes off.
Julie Rodrigues-Santos steals the show with the most crowd-pleasing number of the night. Sarraghina is a woman from Guido's past, an outcast lady of mystery who teaches the young boy about love. Guido sneaks out of his Catholic school, and in the number "Be Italian", Guido learns the ways of love. Rodrigues-Santos is curvy and seductive, and it's easy to see why Guido never forgets her. She breezes in and subtly changes his life forever.
A standout performance is given by Taylor Grigsby as Little Guido. Coming to Guido in his mind, Grigsby brings the older version of himself back down to earth. Little Guido ultimately saves the day with his innocence and unbridled potential. Grigsby shows control and promise as a performer, with a youthful bounce and energy.
The all-female ensemble moves constantly in their flowing choreography. The ensemble is made up of Sydney Brown, Erica Burkett, Jessica Cajina, Madison Eckerson, Isabella Emamghoraishi, Baylee Fitzgerald, Caprie Gordon, Kynzi Gumm, Hailey Hatfield, Maddi Hill, Keyi Hu, Kendall McCollum, Libby McCormack, Abby Morris, Zoë Parkinson, Jaci Reed, Sarah Royse, Ashlea Stewart, McKenzie Tipton, and Sarah Zorn.
UCO CFAD's production of Nine is decadent and dazzling. White's direction and Hui Cha Poos' choreography keeps the cast on their feet and the audience on the edge of their seats. The sexy all-black costumes by Becky McGuigan give the show a feel of a black and white movie. By the numbers, Nine is a perfect ten.
* * *
Nine runs through the weekend of March 1st at Mitchell Hall Theatre. For tickets, visit mitchellhalltheatre.com.