One would be hard pressed to find a stronger volunteer theatre production than the Studio Theatre’s current offering of Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopjt’s Tony Award winning musical NINE. (The term “volunteer” theatre is used because “amateur,” “community,” or “non-professional” belie the quality of the production.)
Rafael Colon Castanera’s production is both visually stunning and full of surprises. The cohesive ensemble is up to the task of telling this compelling, complex tale in an entertaining and enchanting manner. They find the humor and humanity in these sometimes thinly sketched characters and scenarios.
The anchor of the production is James Norris as auteur Guido Contini. He deftly morphs from reality to fantasy while juggling numerous romantic conquests and searching for fulfillment. It is a challenging role because Guido is, at the same time, supposed to be worthy of the audience’s sympathy while also behaving in a unsympathetic manner. Norris had many touching moments as the man-child desperately seeking something. A fearless actor, he threw himself into the role whether the moment called for romance, humor or desperation. These different moods are also reflected in the wide range of singing styles required of the role–all of which he handled skillfully.
As the younger version of Guido, Price Clark showed maturity beyond his years. His performance of “Getting Tall” at the end wrapped up the show as a lesson to the audience about the challenges and opportunities of getting older. Clark also had a wonderful rapport with both Norris (acting as a mentor to his older self) and Beth Ross as his mother (showing love, respect and embarrassment).
Ross was one of many in the cast who had the chance to showcase a wider range of their talents. Often cast in wisecracking roles, she here displayed a maternal warmth and daffiness as well as weariness and frustration. Likewise Julie Atkins often plays long-suffering, noble women. In this show she had the chance to show her comic skills and her bawdiness as an all-knowing spa proprietor. Often playing heartbreaking heroines, Erin Martinez zealously attacked her role as a tambourine-wielding unapologetically, earthy strumpet.
Antisha Anderson-Scruggs was audacious and bodacious as one of Guido’s mistresses. She was bawdy but never crass as she flaunted her sexuality. Anderson-Scruggs also displayed depth as her character faced disappointment with resolve and a new-found strength.
As another mistress, Rachel Warnick elegantly captured the persona of a classic European beauty who is no longer content with being a trophy. She was grateful and forgiving toward Guido, but resolute nonetheless to pursue her new life.
Mary Ann Hansen put the gal in Gallic as a gamine French film producer. She relished her moments in the spotlight and evoked a bygone era as she celebrated a past career (and joyously took the audience along on this reflective journey). Amy Young and K. L. Martin played her entourage; the pair enjoyably insulted, threatened and otherwise antagonized Guido each in her own way.
Elena McKinnis, Bailey Lamb and Moriah Patterson were a protean trio who functioned as a sort of Greek chorus (or was it Italian chorus?) playing various parts and keeping action moving. Together with Martin, these performers showcased their dancing talents as showgirls during the musical within a musical numbers.
Heather Smith was Guido’s long-suffering wife. While clearly in love with him, she was also weary of her stagnant life. A high point of her performance was her sung defense of him to the press in which she is convincing them of his sincerity, while also trying to convince herself.
As director, Castanera elicited layered performances from each of the actors and kept the action moving seamlessly. As designer, he used a deceptively simple, classically elegant scenic design as a framework for the action. Tyler Herron’s transformative lighting and Greg Wirges’ evocative sound design reflected the many different moods and settings.
The orchestra led by music director Bob Bidewell played almost nonstop through this cinematic, nearly operatic production. This lush score has many moods which were ably performed without overpowering the actors.
The costumes by Castanera are almost worth the cost of admission by themselves. Each character was uniquely clad in black attire that reflected their character down to minute details. It is safe to say this show has the most intricate and lavish costumes of any volunteer theatre production in Little Rock history. For the “film” sequence, Castanera mixed some white in with the black and created fantastic, over the top ensembles (again often with unique and humorous touches). The wigs by Robert Pickens were the same quality as the costumes. Together, wigs and costumes helped define the characters without distracting from the actors’ performances.
As a musical, NINE has challenges. In the wrong hands the characters can be vapid and unlikeable. It is also vocally demanding. Much like the source material (a semi-autobiographical Italian film), it has moments of absurdity and a plot which wavers between linear and concept. But NINE also has enormous warmth, heart and joy. The Studio Theatre’s production captures these merits without betraying the complexities of the characters. NiINE is another step forward in the development of both The Studio Theatre as well as volunteer theatre in Central Arkansas.
NINE continues April 4, 9-12 and 16-19. Performances are at 7pm except for Sundays, which are at 2pm.