Colonial Players' revival of 'Nine' tell an engaging story of love and pain

For The Baltimore Sun

Colonial Players continues its 68th season with an extraordinary musical choice in Arthur Kopit's and Maury Yeston's 1982 Tony-awarded play, "Nine," continuing through April 30.

The musical — a show rarely presented locally — is based on famed Italian film director Federico Fellini's 1963 largely autobiographical film "8 ½," which describes a director's struggling with mid-life crisis, writer's block and a disintegrating 20-year marriage.

"Nine" spawned a number of Broadway revivals — including a 2003 return to Broadway that garnered awards including a Tony for Best Revival.

Colonial Players may continue its own award-winning trend with this exciting, thoughtful, probing production.

The show is a fascinating retelling by director and choreographer Ron Giddings. Giddings has assembled an astonishing cast to inhabit the Players' intimate in-the-round stage. His prodigious choreographic skill makes use of every inch of space.

The ensemble is presented on multiple levels, lending interest and openness while focusing on the highlighted subjects. Every scene is perfectly staged to create access to each character — guiding the audience to a full understanding of their dynamics.

Phenomenal music enhances this production. Proving an ideal partner to Giddings is music director Andrew Gordon — a dancer, choreographer and musician who lends superb piano skills to a Broadway caliber 10-piece orchestra.

"Nine" is the story of Guido Contini. It's a tough role for an actor — Guido's conceit, self-absorption and womanizing must be diminished by charm, warmth and vulnerability.

Colonial Players features an ideal Guido: award-winning actor Jason Vellon, a handsome, credible Guido who comes across devoid of discernible conceit. Skilled at interacting with an ensemble of actors, Vellon's Guido easily relates to each member of his harem and delivering every song with credible feeling.

Cast as Guido's adoring enablers are an ensemble of performers linked together into a compatible unit. This galaxy of stars is comprised of women in Guido's life — each has their own introduction before defining their character in song, dance and acting.

Mama Contini ranks above others in her unconditional love for Guido, expressed warmly to a young Guido at age 9, and resolutely to an adult Guido approaching 40. Mama is fully captured by Susan S. Porter, whose loving concern and warm passion recalls the beloved Italian Mama described in Neopolitan song.

Guido's wife of 20 years, Luisa, is exquisitely defined by Alicia Sweeney, elegantly dressed and coifed as a 1960s woman. The character's pained annoyance is flawlessly conveyed by Sweeney, who brings the production to dramatic heights while displaying vocal artistry in her resolute "My Husband Makes Movies."

Also outstanding is multi-awarded actress and director Debbie Barber-Eaton, who is transformed by lustrous long black hair and Italian flair into the character of Sarraghina. Barber-Eaton invests captivating exuberance in a lively tarantella that introduces Guido to the benefits of his Italian heritage.

Barber-Eaton also brings zest and joyous sensuality to her show-stopping "Be Italian," and conveys warm affection in her instructing of young Guido.

Raising the temperature several more degrees is versatile singer-dancer-actor-comedienne Jamie Erin Miller whose portrayal of Carla is hyper-athletic and hilarious in her pursuit of insatiable carnal needs. Carla rises to Cirque de Solei heights when sounding her mating call in "Only With You" — sung upside down, swinging from a bar held by her bent knees.

Stylish Erica Miller serves as Guido's muse Claudia, the unattainable movie star whose celebrity status enables her to reject his pleas. Miller's dramatic and vocal skills are showcased in the song "A Man Like You," where she reveals her affection for Guido. Later Miller expresses Claudia's pragmatic ability to make choices that are advantageous to her.

The role of Young Guido is skillfully brought to life by talented fifth-grader Jackson Parlante, who manages to steal a few scenes from this star-filled cast.

"Nine" continues at Colonial Players, 108 East Street, Annapolis, through April 30. Tickets can be ordered at the box office at 410-268-7373 or online at thecolonialplayers.org.

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