Monday, May 6, 2024


By Ruth Ross

If you have followed my blog for a while, you know I have a soft spot for theaters—especially small ones—that take big risks, in play selection, production values, or both. That’s why I number the Chatham Community Players high on my list of venues that produce plays challenging to the actors and the audience.

Well, they’ve gone and done it again! This time, they have mounted an elegant, polished production of what is probably one of the quirkiest musicals ever to grace Broadway, the 1982 winner of 13 Tony Awards, Nine. That this community theater can adeptly pull off such an ambitious production is a testament to the fine local theater we have in our area of New Jersey!

Based on 8½, Federico Fellini’s 1963 autobiographical film about the trials and tribulations of filmmaking and with music and lyrics by Murray Yeston and book by Arthur Kopit, the show features a beautiful score, comedy, drama, and a cast of 21 (14 making their CCP debut).

Nine follows director Guido Contini (Dan Maceyak, right), whose last three films have been flops, as he strives to find inspiration for a new vehicle to fulfill the contract he signed with his demanding producer, Lilliane LaFleur (Beth Amiano Gleason, right). It doesn’t help that Guido is facing his fortieth birthday while, as he says, his mind is stuck at age ten. To add to the pressure, his wife Luisa threatens divorce if he doesn’t tend to his marriage, and his lovers Carla and Claudia and various friends pressure him, causing him to retreat into his dreams and memories until he comes up with a winning idea.

In homage to the original Fellini film, Director Elizabeth Rogers, Set Designer Roy Pancirov and Costumers Heidi Hart and Beth Amiano Gleason have used black and white accented with burgundy on a handsome Venetian-villa set, complete with “marble” checkerboard tile floor and balcony. Thanks to choreographers Amanda Papa and Matt Mancuso (and Rogers’ directorial chops), the large, mostly female cast navigates the small theater playing space smoothly and dances fluently to the accompaniment of a 5-member orchestra conducted by Emily Bengels, their beautiful voices soaring to the rafters of the intimate Chatham Playhouse.

Onstage for the entire performance as the troubled Guido Contini, Dan Maceyak’s solid stage presence conveys the man’s complex character. As a serial womanizer, cheating on his wife in his mind even as they go to a Venice spa to save their marriage, he should be distasteful, but his creative dilemma arouses sympathy. His good looks and beautiful voice certainly help. The idea he finally arrives at—a musical about, of all things, Casanova—is hilarious. As his long-suffering wife Luisa, Sky Monroe (above, left, with Maceyak) is splendid. Svelte, gorgeous and long-legged, she is. in emotional depth. three times the women he lusts after, and she makes all kinds of excuses for Guido in “My Husband Makes Movies,” which she sings in a voice that aptly conveys her sadness. We find ourselves rooting for her success at winning Guido back.

The other women in Guido’s life are all beautiful, self-absorbed and difficult. Beth Amiano Gleason, imperious and demanding as Lilliane LaFleur, hilariously recalls her former career as a dancer in the Folies Bergères. His suicidal mistress Carla  (Missy Renwick, right, with Maceyak) constantly nags Guido to divorce Luisa and marrying her. She delivers a very sexy, show-stopping solo, ironically entitled “A Call from the Vatican,” which plainly shows why Guido wrestles with his decision. And Lisa Benke shines as former lover and muse Claudia Nardi, called to Venice by Guido to star in his upcoming vehicle, in the same role she’s played in all his other films! She gets to sing the haunting ballad, “Unusual Way,” as she relinquishes her love for him to pursue happiness with a rich suitor.

Other standouts include Rachel Rennagel as Guido’s long-suffering, austere mother—he makes films she couldn’t show to her friends; a very sexy Jessi Baden as the slutty Gypsy beachcomber/prostitute Saraghina (left), who introduces nine-year-old Guido to sensual delights (a rousing “Be Italian” that will make you want to jump up and dance to the rhythm of the tambourines); Lisa Wolper as the ethereal Our Lady of the Spa; Leslie Ellis as the brittle critic Stephanie; and an adorable Jack Ennis as
the young Guido (right). The latter looks cute for much of the time until he gets to dance with his school friends to “Be Italian” and sing “Getting Tall” near the end of the play. And the 10 ensemble members of all shapes and sizes sing and move very well—look beautiful too.

Although none of Yeston's songs made the Hit Parade, they are all closely connected to the plot. “The Grand Canal,” a musical extravaganza about Guido’s film, “Casanova,” is entertainingly amusing. In the end, the film is dead, the cast leaves, the important women in his life leave, and Guido contemplates suicide—only to have young Guido remind him to move on.

Federico Fellini is, perhaps, the only film-make to give his name to a style: “fellini-esque” refers to his propensity for blending reality and fantasy, incorporating surreal images and comic absurdity. Kopit and Yeston have managed to transfer those qualities to the stage, and the Chatham Community Players have brought it to us in an elegant, polished, spellbinding production. Their version of Nine is a real “ten”!

Nine will be performed at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham, through May 18. Performances are May 20, 11, 17 and 18 at 8 PM and Sunday, May 12, at 3 PM. For information and tickets, visit online or call the box office at 973.635.7363.