By Tom Titus
February 18, 2016
When Federico Fellini created his autobiographical movie "8 1/2" in 1963, he hardly could have imagined his story being retold as a bittersweet musical comedy called "Nine" just a decade later.
Dreams and reality collide with memory and surrealism in this entertaining, though occasionally confusing, compilation from Arthur Kopit (book) and Maury Yeston (music and lyrics) now on stage at the Costa Mesa Playhouse under the spirited direction of David A. Blair.
The setting, in Venice, is transformed into an adult amusement park for famed movie director Guido Contini, who is desperately seeking to retain the creative touch he lost while attempting to pacify his increasingly impatient wife and the countless courtesans he encountered during his roller-coaster career. Will this new picture be a comeback or a swan song?
The show itself is an acquired taste, though Blair's Costa Mesa production speeds the acquisition process. As the caddish Guido, William Crisp is a solid centerpiece, agonizing internally as ideas – and relationships – crumble around him and creative pressure mounts. Crisp hits his stride in the more solidly constructed second act, when he settles on the idea of filming the story of the character he was born to play – Casanova.
Jennifer Pearce, as his long-forgiving wife, Luisa, brings a note of reality into the picture, finally cutting the cord with her haunting solo "Be On Your Own." Rosemary London shines in her transformation from steely producer to sensual chorine in the "Follies Bergeres" show stopper.
Araceli Applegate as Guido's longtime star Claudia, chafing at repeating characters and costumes, produces the most memorable musical number, "Unusual Way," which opens the second act. Rainy Terrell provides eye candy and sprightly comedy as the sultry ingenue Carla.
Rampant ribaldry is stirred by the amply endowed Jessica-Elisabeth, who leads a tambourine-beating chorus of "Be Italian." Patty Zantos is fine as Guido's sainted mother, while Gavin Burkhart is endearing as the 9-year-old Guido.
Musical director Todd Hulet's three-piece combo is virtually disguised in the midst of Michael Serna's multilevel setting. The music is rich and resounding, though it does tend to drown out young Burkhart's plaintive solo, "Getting Tall."
"Nine" offers a wealth of opportunities for musical theater actresses while making its lucky star feel like Nero at a Roman banquet. It's yet another creative reach for the ambitious Costa Mesa Playhouse.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater.
If You Go
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 611 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through March 12
Cost: $20 to $18
Information: (949) 650-5269 or http://www.costamesaplayhouse.com