Sunday, July 25, 2004

Nine (Cassidy Theatre)

Challenging 'NINE' performed at Cassidy

Cassidy Theatre, known for years as Greenbrier Theatre, is tucked away in Parma Heights. The city not only encourages the theatre, but gives it financial backing. In the Greater Cleveland area, where public subsidization of the arts is almost nil, this governmental support is a wonderment. Soon, the Cassidy theatrical family will be moving into its new home at Claire’s Folly, a state of the art facility, with a forty-foot fly gallery and state of the art sound and lighting systems. There are many laughs at the sake of this white socks, polyester wearing blue-collar community, but they sure are more into backing of its local theatre than almost any other of its more affluent suburban neighbors. Maybe there is a lesson to be learned here!

In many ways Cassidy is like the little engine that could. It keeps taking on challenges that are beyond its capabilities. It was the first theatre in the area to stage ‘PARADE’ and it now is the first to undertake the challenge of doing the musical ‘NINE’ since its recent Broadway rebirth.

‘NINE,’ made its original debut in 1982. The production won five Tony Awards. It had a very successful revival in 2002.

The show’s book was written by Arthur Kopit, known for his aloof, often abstract plays. The music and lyrics is by Maury Yeston who also penned the less than memorable score for the musical ‘TITANIC.’

The story, which was inspired by the 1963 Federico Fellini film ‘8 1⁄2’, revolves around Guido Contini, a film director in the Fellini mold. The plot is slight enough to easily boil down to: Guido is stalemated in his personal and professional life, unable to commit fully to a relationship or summon the creative energy to make his next movie. This leads to disorienting fantasies (including suicide) from which he's rescued by his nine-year-old alter ego.

In spite of its moderate success, neither the original version nor the revival of ‘NINE’ went critically unscathed. A good deal of negative was pointed at Kopit's failure to create a book that was emotionally satisfying and was too moody and lacking in warmth.

Yeston's unmemorable score is a mix of musical genres -- solo ballads ("My Husband") and duets ("Unusual Way") as well as a whole comic opera sequence ( "Grand Canal "). This is not the kind of music you go out of the theatre humming.

What made the Broadway shows run were the casts. In the 1982 version, the multi-talented Raul Julia played Guido Contini, the film director. In the revival, as one Big Apple critic put it, “The revival of ‘NINE’ owed much of its almost instant hit status to Antonio Banderas whose acting and singing talent plus good looks made for an ideal, matinee idol.

Before examining Cassidy’s production, let’s examine Cassidy Theatre. This is an amateur theatre, no equity contacts, no paid performers. These are performers who perform for the love of performing. Any evaluation of their productions must take that into consideration. The yardstick for measurement can’t be the same as that used for a Broadway touring production, or even the likes of Great Lakes Theatre Festival or the Cleveland Play House. This is theatre right out of the Andy Hardy movies: “Hey kids, here’s a performance space, let’s put on a play.”

With that said, The Cassidy production of ‘NINE’ is credible. This is a compliment considering the difficulty of the vehicle they chose to confront. The show requires a charismatic, sensual, fine singing, superlative actor to play the lead. It requires one talented eight-year old boy and thirteen actresses who can sing and act. Few, if any theatres could pull that off with aplomb.

Director Lester Currie has done a fine job of staging the play. He uses his performers like chess pawns, moving them to the most advantageous places to accent ideas. He is also the costume designer of some of the finest and most appropriate clothing seen on a local stage.

Bob Stroesser, who portrays Guido is definitely no Raul Julia or Antonio Banderas. He lacks their sensuality. He often feigns emotions, overacting and making distracting facial expressions to express feelings. His inconsistent accent sometimes makes understanding him difficult and may be the cause of his acting difficulties. He has a fine singing voice which he uses well in interpreting songs.

The women, who are like an ever-present modern Greek chorus who step in and out of Guido’s life, are generally acceptable. Their acting and singing varies, as is often the case in amateur theatre. On the high end is Megan Grimes as Guido’s wife, Beth Cubbison as his mother and Linda Kindsvatter as one of the women in Guido’s life.

David Dettloff’s orchestra did a nice job of backing up the singers rather than drowning them out, which is often the case in local theatrical productions where the musical director sometimes forgets that this is not a concert, but the purpose of the music is to aid the performers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘NINE’ is a very difficult theatrical undertaking. The Cassidy production was well-received by the sold-out house, and that, when you get down to it, is what theatrical entertainment is all about.