Some of the best things in life are limited. The unparalleled joy and excitement of being offered a dream job. The fully realized taste of extravagance in an ongoing buffet of austerity. The gloriously shocking smell of rain after a long and persistent drought. That giddy, stomach dropping, never-to-be-repeated-in-quite-the-same-way sensation one gets with the realization that love is not only possible, but oh, so generously endowed.
Add to that list, a singularly exceptional theatrical experience taking place for a very brief time at the NMSU Center for the Arts: Scaffolding Theater Company’s inaugural presentation of the five-time Tony Award winning production “Nine.”
Why exceptional? I don’t know that here are enough superlatives in the English language to fully express the range of emotion evoked by this one, truly unforgettable night of theater taking place right here, for an all-too brief four performance run, in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The bar has been set so incredibly high by this presentation, I can only imagine every artistic director of every theater company within a two hour driving distance – both semi-professional and community alike – scrambling to comprehend the impact this one production will have on any and all future presentations for years to come. It was and is that good.
Now comes the admission, which may serve as a caveat to some. To wit, I am not a fan of musical theater. Never have been. I happily admit that I do believe it is one of the hardest forms of theater to pull off, perhaps even more so than comedy and for the same reason: Timing. If it isn’t perfect, in this case pitch perfect, the production may as well be a soufflé in a sandstorm. On the other hand, when it achieves the pure, unadulterated pitch of sonorous perfection- a level of transcendence not only fleeting, but almost mythic in the Arthurian sense – even a tone deaf monkey will sit up and take notice. I am just such a monkey.
For the uninitiated, “Nine” is a near-legendary, award-winning musical loosely based on Federico Fellini’s semiautobiographical film 8 ½. It tells the tale of fading film director and former genius of Italian cinema Guido Contini, who after a spate of flops, finds himself embroiled in a mid-life crisis, haunted by ghosts from his past and running from a deadline that is threatening to destroy what’s left of his career. This opens the door for a virtual cavalcade of exceptional women – actresses, lovers and even his mother – to sing, dance and strut their way through his subconscious, spilling out onto the stage for all the world to see. With the single addition of the younger version of himself, who flits through the various chapters of his life like a frail ghost of fleeting memory (and is played, with wide-eyed wonder, by nine-year-old Annabel Simpson), Guido is the only male character in the 16-role production.
Something must be said here about the inspired theater-in-the-round staging of this production, which places the audience on-stage with the performers, surrounding a minimalist set. The effect of having the actresses enter, exit and perform amongst the audience creates a unique experience in which there are times it is entirely engulfed by a multitude of melodic layers all contributing to one central song. What it does in effect is not only draw the audience in, but make it a central part of the operatic madness, taking place in the unraveling mind of a genius. It is beautiful in the way that cathedrals are beautiful, with soaring buttresses of harmonic sound that are so flawless as to be almost ethereal. More than a few times, I found myself so moved by the euphony that I could feel the hairs on my neck standing on end.
Having the empty and minimally lit auditorium as a backdrop to this display is the payoff of this inspiration, particularly when it is used for a handful of cinematic moments that so acutely portray the growing distance between reality and fading memories, as well as hopeful dreams and lost loves, that one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the terrible and all-too-human beauty of it all.
The costuming, too, is noteworthy if only because of its unobtrusiveness, with huge props going out to Costume Designer Shay Harris. With a palate made up completely of black and white, drawing parallels to the artistic quality of Contini’s filmwork, it creates a flickering synergy of constantly moving bodies that further add to the surreal environment of the filmmaker’s mind. The lighting, the sound, the choreography, every single element is at the precise level it needs to be to create effects that enhance the drama. These are the nuances that push that creative bar so incredibly high.
To my knowledge, this is the first production I have seen by director Justin Lucero. Reading and re-reading his director’s note in the production program barely yields enough insight into the incredible talent this young man so obviously possesses to sufficiently satisfy an enflamed curiosity. His all-too brief biography, sprinkled as it is with references to freelance experience in such notable companies as El Paso Opera, Viva! El Paso and the West End’s Regents Park Open Air Theater in London, barely whets the appetite to know more. Never having seen anything by him, I cannot know if he has surpassed his previous efforts, or if this is the bar he regularly sets. I do know that I am so impressed by this one production he may well have made a fan for life. Bravo, Mr. Lucero.
As for the play itself, the assemblage of this exceptional cast can only be called unprecedented in my experience. Though many of the actors involved are known to me and have impressed me on many levels in past productions, they are so obviously well cast in “Nine” that it’s hard to imagine ever having seen them in anything else. This includes not only the “professionals” among them, but the students as well. Not one role was miscast, not one note was out of place, not one nuance unachieved.
The mastery of David Cunniff on piano, providing the sole musical instrumentation (save for the tambourines used so expressively in the seductively haunting “Be Italian”), cannot be undervalued. Cunniff, a senior systems engineer for NASA, is so prodigiously talented as a musician one has to wonder how he is still in possession of his immortal soul. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe could not have perfected a more adroit proficiency and certainly not without some form of diabolic influence. My respect for the man grows with every performance I am lucky enough to catch.
The same can also be said for Charles LeCocq, a maddeningly mercurial and puckish powerhouse of talent who, when properly directed, achieves a level of sublimity that so completely offsets his slight frame to the point one would swear he is a much larger man. As Guido Contini, the protagonist of “Nine,” he is at once spritely, melancholy, childish, brutish, immensely burdened, infuriatingly dismissive and yet, at all times, wholly believable. Though I have never seen Charles perform in a musical environment before, he so completely holds his own in a roomful of exceptional vocal talents, one never, for even a single moment, ceases to believe he has the power to so utterly possess every woman on the stage; a fundamental prerequisite for the role. Though I would not call his vocal range remarkable, he more than makes up for it with an all-or-nothing performance that will, if you allow yourself the luxury, leave you breathless. Just as it did me.
Megan McQueen, perhaps the most passionately creative talent southern New Mexico has to offer, comes into her own with this production. As co-Artistic Director of the fledgling Scaffolding Theatre Company (with the aforementioned Justin Lucero) and Musical Director of this inaugural performance, she may finally have realized her true potential as a diva of the first order. As the long-suffering Luisa Contini, wife of Guido, she is incandescent. Her warmly genuine depiction of the former film star who gave up everything to become the chief muse of the self-destructive genius Guido, is painful to watch, so believable is her joy at being in his presence and her devastation at his betrayals. Her final song, the powerful “Be On Your Own,” is so emotionally charged and nakedly delivered one can hear the sound of a heart breaking in the breath between every rich note she sings. This may well be McQueen’s finest theatrical performance to date.
The rest of the cast is made up of one revelation after another; a multilayered ensemble of such talented complexity one wonders how McQueen and Lucero were able to pull them together on one stage.
Denise Castaneda, as Guido’s sex-starved mistress Carla, is the very personification of pouty, petulant and alluringly beautiful sex kitten, with a voice at once playfully suggestive and mercilessly sharp. Her delivery of the profane “A Call From The Vatican” is pretty much guaranteed to make a grown man squirm.
Amanda Bradford as Guido’s mother has the voice of an operatic angel, soaring unfettered and pure in the wide open spaces of Guido’s boyhood memories – the gorgeous title song, “Nine” – only to dash itself against the rocks of motherly anguish when he experiences his life-changing moment in the powerful “The Bells of St. Sebastian.” Her moments with Guido, both as a child and an adult, are heart rending in their evocation of a loving, Italian mother who never stops believing in her lost and wayward son.
Amy Lynn Whipple takes the exasperated and sometimes shrill producer Liliane LaFleur and mines it for comic gold, never missing an opportunity to elicit a smile or raised eyebrow, but it isn’t until her show-stopping number “Folies Bergeres” that she truly ascends into the stratosphere of bravura achievement. All shimmy and sass, she works the stage like a showgirl in her element. There is never a moment that we doubt she was, once upon a time, a star of the notorious and infamous French cabaret.
Aylin White, as Guido’s muse and a film star at the top of her game, takes a relatively small role and turns it into an unforgettable statement on the power of unrequited love. Her powerful rendition of the pragmatically loss-affirming song “A Man Like You/Unusual Way” has haunted me since White wrung out every ounce of emotion she could find in it Friday night, and probably will for some time.
Though saddled with what are basically incidental character roles on opposite ends of the spectrum, 16-year-old Alyssa Gose, as the virginal (the only character costumed entirely in white) Our Lady of the Spa, and LaSasha Aldredge, as the seductive free spirit Sarraghina, are both electrifying in their respective musical numbers, “Spa Music” and “Be Italian.”
Though she never receives a musical number of her own, Meagan Higgins, as the acerbic assistant producer Stephanie, who is assigned to guide Guido in his attempt to come up with an idea for a movie that is set to begin within days, she is at once haughty, snide and dismissive, yet becomes a bundle of flirtatious energy when given the opportunity to perform before the camera. Her depiction of the no-nonsense and somewhat jaded business side of the film industry is spot on.
A handful of other actresses – Taylor Rey, Marianna Gallegos, Jamie Smith, Veronica Bissell, Claire Koleske and Noelia de la Rosa – round out the cast of this unparalleled production, providing lovely, rich vocal measures and energetic participation, each a necessary element to the success of the whole. Great job, ladies!
Whereas Act 1 sets the tone of the play, introducing Guido and his many female counterparts via a series of delightfully captivating numbers, the culmination in Act 2, wherein Contini’s personal and creative life collide spectacularly is where the true power of the medium lies. Providing a non-stop barrage of raw expressive emotion, it builds to a crescendo, ingeniously offset by the clear, bell-like tones of Annabel Simpson in her one true number, “Getting Tall.”
After the power of the ballads which have come before, the thin keening of Simpson’s plaintive voice becomes the tension-relieving snap of Guido’s last tether to sanity, played out in the finale, the reprise of “Long Ago” and “Nine.” So emotional was the experience that on opening night a well-deserved ovation brought the audience to its feet and lingered long afterwards, as pockets of theatergoers exited the building, stunned by the magnitude of what they had just witnessed and genuinely effusive in their praise.
Whether you like musicals or not, there is far more on display in this outstanding production than can be measured in a single review. Taken as a whole, it is a masterpiece achievement by some of the most talented young thespians working the local stages today. It almost seems a crime that it has such a limited run which, by the time this review is seen by most, will be half over. Yet for those lucky enough to experience it, the moment will be made all the more significant when future generations point back to it as the point when the bar was undeniably raised in Las Cruces theater.
If just one word can possibly be enough to sum this production up, that word would have to be, bellissimo.
Performances are Saturday June 7, Sunday June 8, Friday June 13, and Saturday June 14 at 7:30pm. Sponsors of the production will receive reserved seating. General admission tickets are $15 by cash or check, and are available at the Center for the Arts Box office Fridays and Saturdays from 12-4pm. For more information, including videos about the process of creating the production, visit the website or call 575-646-5952.