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Flattened Fellini

A stiff Nine comes up short on fun and fantasy

Nine, by Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston, won best musical and four other Tonys in 1982. Perhaps the adulation had as much to do with Tommy Tune's direction as it did with the musical itself, because the Main Street Theater production is a flat-footed blunder from beginning to end.

The script, based on Federico Fellini's film 8 1/2, tells Guido Contini's story. This "famous Italian director" is prone to lovely flights of fancy. But his rich, wild and utterly salacious imagination gets him in trouble, especially when it comes to women. When his wife has had enough, she insists they take a trip to a Venetian spa to patch things up. Poor Guido can't help but bring along his imagination and the many women who occupy it.

Fellini, wild women and Venice are subjects rich with luscious imagery and comic potential, and are certainly ripe for a wondrous musical. But the folks at Main Street mounted this play as part of their "in concert" series, without full costumes, set or band (and without, it would appear, much imagination, either). So the great potential of the piece is lost in a sea of black clothes, stiff, strange "choreography" and muted performances.

Those most undone by this choice are the actors. Although talented, they are restricted in movement, singing and acting choices by the cold, oatmeal-bland direction of Rob Babbitt and Kim Hupp. For no good reason the actors spend most of their of time seated. They even dance the tarantella, a tambourine-snapping skip of frenzied love, while seated. And when they aren't in their chairs they are often toting their chairs around, even dancing with them in strangely syncopated silly moves that look terribly uncomfortable and weirdly awkward.

Terry Jones as Guido carries the weight of this production. Although Jones clearly has enough vocal and acting talent to bring off the role with the required Italian style, his performance lacks the ribald energy needed to make this solipsistic man lovable in spite of his bad behavior. Likewise, Danica Baker as Carla, Guido's mistress, is an obviously competent performer but is so restricted in her movements and in her vocal energy that she barely scrapes the top of her character's wickedly comic potential.

In fact, the only truly funny performance comes from Lesley Sisk as Sarraghina, a whore who teaches young Guido the finest lines to woo a lady. Only Sisk manages to make do with the inadequate direction. Even though she's confined to a chair pushed way upstage, as far away from the audience as can she be, she is full of light, life and the wonderful joy demanded by this play.

All the performers are talented, some even charmingly so. It's a shame to see this talent wasted in a production that seems so utterly counter to the spirit in which the play was written.

-- Lee Williams

Nine runs through April 3 at Main Street Theater, 4617 Montrose. (713)524-6706. $13-$18.

 
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