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STAGE REVIEW

With glamorous abandon, ‘Nine’ overcomes flaws

Timothy John Smith (center) is Italian filmmaker Guido Contini in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of “Nine.’’ Timothy John Smith (center) is Italian filmmaker Guido Contini in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of “Nine.’’ (Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / January 25, 2011

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When he was a teenager, Paul Daigneault saw the original 1982 production of “Nine.’’ It was the first Broadway show he ever saw.

Now, nearly three decades later, in a kind of homage to that formative musical, Daigneault is directing a production of “Nine’’ at SpeakEasy Stage Company that is faithful to the spirit of the original, with all its considerable strengths and equally considerable weaknesses.

So SpeakEasy’s “Nine’’ rides the piquant melodies of Maury Yeston even as it sags beneath Yeston’s frequently bland lyrics. Set designer Eric Levenson (with blue arches that evoke a twilight mood), and costume designer Charles Schoonmaker (whose outfits range from sexy to sumptuous) team up to create a visual feast whose glamorous ingredients help conceal the essential flimsiness of Arthur Kopit’s book.

The central performance, by Timothy John Smith as Guido Contini, the philandering and creatively blocked Italian filmmaker, is forceful enough that it almost, but not quite, compensates for the fact that Contini’s dilemma is never made all that compelling.

Will any of these flaws prevent you from having a good time at “Nine’’? Probably not.

This is a show that rises or falls on the strength of sheer, old-fashioned pizzazz — “Nine’’ may have an Italian accent, but it’s also got more than a touch of Vegas in its soul — and the SpeakEasy production boasts an abundance of that.

That is thanks in significant part to the sinuous dances devised by choreographer David Connolly, and to Daigneault’s deft management of the copious and fast-moving onstage traffic. Crucially, the director has also made sure that his cast largely avoids sounding like graduates of the Chico Marx School of Elocution.

With 15 female roles out of an ensemble of 17, “Nine’’ constitutes a kind of full-employment act for Boston-area actresses. Aimee Doherty stands out in that crowded company, projecting a quiet force as Luisa, Guido’s long-suffering-but-not-willing-to-suffer-any-longer wife. (In her eyeglasses and piled hair, she looks faintly Palinesque — or should it be Fey-esque?).

Doherty brings a wistful ache to “My Husband Makes Movies,’’ in which Luisa, alternating between comments to reporters and private musings, sings of the way she slowly lost her husband to his work (“My husband spins fantasies/He lives them, then gives them to you all’’) while forfeiting her own career as an actress along the way.

As Sarraghina, a shady lady from Guido’s childhood, Kerry A. Dowling belts out “Ti Voglio Bene/Be Italian’’ with all the bawdy abandon the song requires, accompanied by a tambourine-banging ensemble. Dowling is clearly at home on the SpeakEasy stage; she has also supplied vivid splashes of color to such earlier productions there as “Reckless’’ and “The Great American Trailer Park Musical.’’

But other fine singer-actresses like Kami Rushell Smith are underutilized in “Nine.’’ Most of the female characters in “Nine’’ are sketchy and undeveloped because they exist primarily as phantasmal figures in Guido’s waking dreams, embodiments of his hopes, fears, regrets, and anxieties.

On the cusp of 40, Guido is a filmmaker so renowned that he is mentioned in the same breath as Charlie Chaplin, but he finds himself barren of ideas for his new movie, even as he tries to entice back his onetime star and muse, Claudia (Jennifer Ellis), who suspects, correctly, that Guido wants her to play the kind of role she has played several times already and has grown weary of.

With his last three films having been flops, Guido faces pressure from his producer, who is amusingly played by Maureen Keiller, especially in a number, “Folies Bergeres,’’ that has no logical place in “Nine’’ but is shoehorned in for its entertainment value.

Guido is also under siege from his longtime mistress, Carla (McCaela Donovan), who wants to divorce her husband so she can be with Guido. Meanwhile, the director’s eye keeps falling on other women, even as his marriage to Luisa is hanging by a thread. And then there are the vestiges of Catholic guilt and childlike insecurity that cling to him, reinforced by the spectral appearance of his forbidding mother (Cheryl McMahon).

Smith finds deeper layers to Guido as “Nine’’ goes on — layers that aren’t necessarily in the script — until he finally communicates the helpless despair of the onetime genius-auteur with a powerful Act II rendition of “I Can’t Make This Movie.’’ At that moment, and at a number of others, “Nine’’ adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

NINE

Musical with book by Arthur Kopit, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. Adaptation from the Italian by Mario Fratti. Based on Fellini’s “8 1/2.’’

Directed by: Paul Daigneault. Choreography, David Connolly. Musical direction, Nicholas James Connell. Sets, Eric Levenson. Lights, Jeff Adelberg. Costumes, Charles Schoonmaker. Sound, Aaron Mack. Projection, SeÓghan McKay. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company.

At: Roberts Studio Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Feb. 20. Tickets $30-$57, 617-933-8600, www.SpeakEasyStage.com