By David Dixon
It’s been a long time since the musical “Nine” was staged in San Diego. The last major production of the adaptation of Federico Fellini’s movie “8 ½” took place in 2008 at the outdoor Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park.
The Lamplighters Community Theatre’s 2019 version in La Mesa has a cast of 16, pays homage to the original, and features several standout performances. But staging it for this season was a happenstance decision by Lamplighters.
Director George Bailey suggested “Nine” only after another selection was turned down because of issues with the rights to the show, which opened the way for him to pick this production.
“[“Nine” is] something I’ve always wanted to work on, and I’ve loved it ever since I heard the original cast recording in the early 1980’s,” he said.
In a Venetian spa that’s starting to show its age (O.P. Hadlock’s set depicts this perfectly), a famous Italian director Guido Contini (played by music director Christopher T. Miller) is struggling to come up with the idea for his next movie, after his last few films flopped.
While he tries to convince his wife Luisa (Keri Miller) that their trip to the spa will be a romantic getaway, Guido deals with his relationships with his married mistress, Carla Albanese (Alyssa Austin), and a muse who frequently collaborated with him in the past, Claudia Nardi (Olivia Torres).
Bailey’s interpretation draws out the humor in the plot, as well as in songs such as “Guido’s Song” and “A Call From the Vatican,” where audiences learn about Guido’s flawed professional and personal life.
The most haunting sequence in the show is one of his simplest — the act one finale, “The Bells of St. Sebastian,” where Guido and the ensemble sing about the religious upbringing that scarred his childhood. Miller and the several actresses (almost all of whom wear black costumes from Pam Stompoly-Ericson, something that gives the evening a distinct look) sing the group numbers in a choral fashion that is powerful and intense.
Maury Yeston’s music and lyrics are funny and lighthearted at the outset but start to become darker at the finale to act one. Later on, his songs begin to show the consequences of Guido’s affairs and procrastination as reality and his imagination continue to collide. Through all this, however, the audience continues to sympathize with him.
Bailey, along with co-stars Christopher Miller and Kerri Miller, find Yeston’s songs beautiful to listen to. “I’m particularly impressed with how the melodies come back to haunt you,” Kerri Miller said.
“You discover things like that as you’re still rehearsing,” Bailey said.
“He [Yeston] manages to create hummable melodies and still be very playful,” Christopher Miller said.
The book and the songs sometimes tie into the number nine in a rather corny way, yet its use does eventually result in a moving conclusion.
Both Christopher Miller and Kerri Miller are married in real life and have played a married couple several times onstage in the past. Keri mentioned that the marriage they depict in this performance, however, is much more contentious than many they have played previously.
“It’s interesting to work on angry and sad scenes between us, since it’s so contrary to what our offstage marriage is like,” Keri Miller said. “To pretend to be so upset with him feels odd.”
As for her husband, he’s had to think about his past relationships to work on these moments.
“A lot of times, it ends up being a matter of digging back on how our ex betrayed us or did us wrong. There’s a strange dissonance where I realize I’m talking to my wife’s face, but I think I’m talking to that Kathy girl,” he said, laughing.
Christopher Miller as Guido sings and acts with a mixture of mischievous confidence and self-doubt, and Keri portrays Luisa with a sense of regret that slowly builds to uncontrollable anger and sadness.
Other co-stars featured in memorable moments and solos include Torres, Marnie Klein, Linda Snyder and Dawn Marie Zuniga-Williams who leads the ensemble in “Be Italian,” a number that features quick dance moves from Austin and catchy orchestrations from Up ‘Til 4 Music (Christopher Miller worked on additional orchestrations) on Bailey’s audio.
The La Mesa interpretation is an unconventional character study that benefits from Bailey’s direction and strong performance by the artists. Check it out, or you may have to wait years to see it again in San Diego County.
“Nine” is running at Lamplighters Community Theatre through May 19. For tickets or more information, visit lamplighterslamesa.com or call 619-303-5092.
— David Dixon is a freelance journalist with a penchant for film and theater. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.