9 Takeaways from Theater Red’s Performance of ‘Nine’ Musical

The musical, based on a Federico Fellini film, balances humor with poignancy and dubious gender politics.

Go See It: Nine by Theater Red at the Sunset Playhouse Studio Theater (); Jan. 25-27

1) There were literal LOLs among the audience.

Nine, a play by Arthur Kopit (music and lyrics by Maury Yeston) based on Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film 8 ½, is a comedic musical that inclines toward farce. While the Theater Red production (directed by Eric Welch) strikes a pleasant balance between drama and humor, it’s clear this cast largely comprises actors with comedic proclivities. In the intimate Sunset Playhouse in Elm Grove, the audience can get up close and personal with the actors’ physical comedy, facial work and winking song delivery.

The audience erupted in laughter throughout the opening night performance. Particularly amusing are the jokes at protagonist Guido Contini’s (Timothy J. Barnes) expense — “A typical Italian with his auto and biography, a mixture of Catholicism, pasta, and pornography,” as he is described by his captious critic (Marcee Doherty-Elst).

2) Something feels anachronous about staging a play concerning a man’s creative block at this point in history.

Unlike last week’s Renaissance Theaterworks performance of Photograph 51, which features an all-male supporting cast orbiting a woman reviled in spite of her professional success, Nine features an all-female supporting cast orbiting a man beloved in spite of his creative failures.

Guido Contini is a lovable narcissist, a philandering genius, a man who’s convinced himself his troubles are worse than they really are. His charm issues from his self-aggrandizement and male swagger, his self-pity more manipulative than vulnerable. And his big creative breakthrough comes in the decision to film a Casanova retelling.

Guide (Timothy J Barnes) and Carla (Samantha Sostarich); photo by Traveling Lemur Productions

His first-act “I want” song (“Guido’s Song”) toes the line between egomaniacal and self-effacing (a credit to Barnes’ performance) — “I would like to be wise before my time / And yet be foolish and brash and bold,” he croons. “I would like to be Christ, Mohammed, Buddha / But not have to believe in God.” This feels like a good start, but at the end, the play’s nucleus still remains the only male character, and though female characters abound in three dimensions — creative muse and ingenue Claudia even pleads with Guido, “I am not a spirit. I am real.” — their stories remain relational to his.

Playwright Maury Yeston has called the play “an essay on the power of women [that answers] the question, ‘What are women to men?’” In 2019, it seems the question ought to finally be revised: What are women to themselves?

3) That said, “He’s a crazy man, but he’s a prince.”

Timothy J Barnes (Guido) and Hannah Esch (Our Lady of the Spa); photo by Traveling Lemur Productions

Despite the musical’s questionable gender politics, Timothy J. Barnes’ performance as Guido invites the audience’s sympathy, and, in my opinion, achieves it. Often a problem in narratives of genius where reputation precedes a character is that we don’t get a concrete sense of the veneration’s provenance. Guido’s creative genius is scarcely sketched out, taken as fact based solely on his harem’s ardent plaudits. That said, Guido remains a likable protagonist, in large part thanks to Barnes’ comedic sensibility, which supplies equal measures of irony and sincerity.

4) The Theater Red production affords nine dynamic roles for women, each of whom rises to the occasion.

It’s hard to find fault with a script that provides so many comedic roles for women, and its attempts at granting each agency are enhanced by the Theater Red cast (kudos to Hannah Esch as Our Lady of the Spa and Jennifer A. Larsen as Mama Maddalena for particularly committed performances).

5) Minimal set design gives staging the (pardon the pun) spotlight.

Guido puts women in boxes and on pedestals, so it’s fitting that one of the only bits of set design is a collection of wooden crates, exploited for various purposes. The show opens with each of nine women atop a crate, offering their panoply of opinions on Guido Contini, revered film director.

The Theater Red production makes use of the entire room, sending its cast into the aisles where they even interact with audience members. Without the distraction of elaborate sets, the production elicits that imaginative alchemy between audience and creator more often found in books.

6) Nine mines the Madonna-whore complex and sidelined wife tropes but ultimately finds no new material.

Rae Elizabeth Pare (Luisa) and Carrie Gray (Lina); photo by Traveling Lemur Productions

Guido’s journey offers an explicit juxtaposition between wife and mistress, mother and prostitute. His grappling plays out on stage, but the questions asked about the unfair dichotomy concern how it affects men, seeming less interested in the ramifications for women, who have to choose a box to stand atop.

Paré as Guido’s wife Luisa grapples with her own crisis of identity, recalling the independent life that has been choked out by her husband’s genius. Her gripes, however justifiable, come across too sour, perhaps for the sake of stakes — Why can’t she just leave him alone to write his screenplay? There’s still room to subvert and complicate the nagging wife stereotype (piled on here by Guido’s persistent producer, played by SaraLynn Evenson), but Nine doesn’t quite succeed.

7) The songs, though lacking in earworm potential, were beautifully sung.

As the show progressed, I came to the conclusion that this score was not quite worthy of the talents that brought it to life. There’s a reason this soundtrack hasn’t permeated the casual theater-goer’s canon: its songs, while vocally challenging and lyrically productive in both exposition and character development, are not very catchy.

Ballads by Rae Elizabeth Paré as Luisa and Kara Ernst-Schalk as Claudia — “My Husband Makes Movies” and “A Man Like You/Unusual Way,” respectively — beautifully slowed the pace and lent the production a sense of self-awareness to balance its absurdity. Between the over-the-top Italian accents and outrageous female machinations conveyed in other songs, the musical numbers recalled the joy of discovering that at SNL cast member actually has the voice of an angel.

(L to R): Carrie Gray, Marcee Doherty-Elst, Samantha Sostarich, Hannah Esch, Timothy J Barnes, Rae Elizabeth Pare; photo by Traveling Lemur Productions

8) Ridiculousness shines in good execution: the dancing.

Similarly, the cast’s dancing chops highlighted the production’s comedic ethos by being good. Carla’s (Samantha Sostarich) burlesque-inspired performance in “A Call from the Vatican” and Sarraghina’s (also Marcee Doherty-Elst) in “Ti Voglio Bene/Be Italian” seemed to critique the genre while simultaneously mastering it, bringing sexual undertones to the phrase “tongue in cheek.” It’s clear we’re laughing with the cast (and the characters!), not at them, a clarity that comes from an artful performance.

9) He writes the subtitles.

Inside joke. Guess you had to be there.

Go See It: Nine by Theater Red at the Sunset Playhouse Studio Theater (); Jan. 25-27



Karisa Langlo is the Digital Editor for Milwaukee Magazine.