Let’s make it clear: the production of Nine, currently on stage at the Westchester Broadway Theatre, bears only a passing resemblance to last year’s high-star-wattage movie version with Daniel Day-Lewis, Penélope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, and Marion Cotillard. And, for the most part, that’s a good thing.
Based on Federico Fellini’s film 8½, both the stage musical and the film follow Italian film director Guido Contini who, creatively and personally blocked, must sort out his relationships with the women in his life: his wife, his mistress, his muse, his mother, and more.
Instead of Daniel Day-Lewis, our Guido Contini is Robert Cuccioli, best known for starring in Broadway’s Jekyll and Hyde. Contini is a difficult role to master: he has to come off as tortured without seeming too self-pitying and, though the ladies get the showy solos, he’s the driving force behind every scene. Cuccioli seems to understand these nuances even better than Day-Lewis, who appears whiny more than anything else. (Cuccioli is also the member of the stage musical cast who has best mastered the Italian accent. Other actors seemed to make do with whatever European accent they could muster regardless of the nationality of their characters.)
Of course, Cuccioli has help from the many women he’s pitted against, most notably Julie Tolivar, who plays his over-the-top mistress Carla. As Carla, Toliver slinks around on stage in an outfit that requires a suspension of modesty, and she still manages to belt out her brassy songs effortlessly.
But more important than the cast, the Westchester Broadway Theatre’s production of Nine surpasses the film adaptation because of its staging. Sure, with a big studio budget behind it, the film was able to put together some spectacular numbers. For example, the film version of “Ti Voglio Bene/Be Italian” trucks a beach onto its stage and has dancers whipping around the sand at strategic moments in time with the music. It makes for a stunning visual image, and obviously one that can’t be replicated on stage at the Westchester Broadway Theatre.
Mostly, though, film director Rob Marshall, at the most important parts in the story, still points his camera towards an empty stage and films musical numbers as if they were live theater. This brings about a worst-of compromise, where you’re watching something with all of the limitations of a one-stage production but none of the excitement and energy of live theater. The Westchester Broadway Theatre’s stage may be smaller, but it feels more fluid and alive to see real actors on a real stage instead of movie actors further removed onto a virtual stage.
Nine will be at the Westchester Broadway Theatre (1 Broadway Plz, Elmsford 914-592-2222) through April 24.
(Above) Robert Cuccioli and his leading ladies