Some artists have such a distinctive style that a new term has to be coined for their work. Italian film director Federico Fellini, for one, inspired the word Felliniesque, used to connote a poetic, dreamy surrealism.
Nine, the latest production from Arizona Repertory Theatre, revels in evoking the mood and iconography of a Fellini film: the musical is a reimagining of his 1963 art film, 8½.
ART's production is beautiful and strange—successfully Felliniesque, in other words. But if you're not familiar with the mid-century Italian movie, however, you might find yourself a bit at sea in Nine's symbolic, self-referential world.
The main character, Guido, is a successful Italian film director, a loose stand-in for Fellini himself. The meandering, atmospheric film revolved around Guido's desperate search for a new movie idea, allowing Fellini to reflect on life and art and love through Guido's encounters with priests, actors, critics and the women in his life, past and present.
Nine, the play, focuses almost exclusively on Guido's relationships with women, minimizing the film's emphasis on Guido's art and religion.
Maury Yeston, who wrote the play's music and lyrics, turned his fascination with 8½ into Broadway success when he premiered Nine in 1982, with a book by Arthur Kopit. The show, at its core, is a love letter to Fellini.
The director of the ART production, Danny Gurwin, begins the action with a screen showing grainy cinema footage. The screen rises, revealing the cast, outfitted by costume designer Patrick Holt in a variety of modish '60s outfits. The dominant colors are black and white, evoking the rich but colorless visuals of Fellini's films.
Guido, our blocked movie director, is played by the cast's sole adult male, actor Max Tzannes. A younger version of Guido (played alternately by child actors Billy Temple and Stefan Vikingur) emerges to re-enact childhood memories.
But other than child-Guido, our hapless hero is surrounded by women. In fact, Nine provides a buffet of great roles for women, and almost every female character gets a solo number, giving a talented student cast a chance to shine.
There's Guido's long-suffering wife, Luisa (Erica Renee Smith); his mistress, Carla (Caitlin Stegemoller); his demanding producer, La Fleur (Carolyn Fluehr); and his star actress, Claudia (Kelsey Anne Johnson).
Important women from his past also turn up, including his mother (Kylie Arnold) and a prostitute he visited as a child, Sarraghina (Sydnee Ortiz).
The young female performers are given glitzy costumes, vocal solos and provocative dance numbers, and these enthusiastic young actors are clearly delighted to be strutting their stuff onstage. The UA has a lot of talented student performers, and Nine is a canny choice in terms of giving the women a vehicle.
All this emphasis on women is ironic, because it's harder to imagine a more deeply male-centered point of view than the one that informs the film 8½.
Still, even in the play, the female characters exist to reveal aspects of Guido (and, by extension, Fellini). They fulfill his sexual fantasies, rebuke him, inspire him, coddle him, tempt him and threaten to leave him.
The world of Nine is dreamlike, and the dreamer is a self-absorbed male. So if you're not gripped by the sexual inadequacies of a well-off, middle-aged Italian man, you won't find Nine very compelling.
It doesn't help that the music is pretty but unmemorable. As Carla, Stegemoller adds some razzle-dazzle to "Call From the Vatican," one of the night's peppier numbers. The performers all do solid vocal work. But you probably won't leave humming any of the songs.
Fellini's most lasting legacy lies in his movies' visuals. And the visuals of ART's Nine really pop. Not only do the costumes evoke '60s cool, but the set (designed by Michelle A. Bisbee) is an exercise in the Felliniesque: There's a white staircase that leads to nowhere and a symbolic fountain in which Guido submerges himself. And in a nice nod to the self-referential nature of the story, the musicians are onstage during the show.
If you're not feeling the Fellini love, the beautiful oddity of Nine will leave you cold. But if you're fan of his surreal visuals and melancholy obsession with sexy women, this homage will get you in the mood to revisit 8½.