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Stage review: ‘Nine’ with an all-female orchestra is brilliantly realized

Posted 7:39am on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013

DALLAS — Lyric Stage doesn’t do musicals like any other company in town — they take them to the next level. That’s thanks to what has become a hallmark for this group: resurrecting original orchestrations and performing them with a full orchestra; always with at least 30 instruments, sometimes with upwards of 40. To that, add professional actors and top-notch visuals. It’s often something special.

But for its one-weekend production of the Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit musical Nine, Lyric does things a little differently. There is a full orchestra, but you quickly notice something different about the players: They’re all women.

It’s a conceit that works brilliantly with this show, which is based on Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8 1/2 about a famous Italian film director having a mid-life and artistic crisis. In the story, this modern day casanova is surrounded by women — his wife, mistress, mother, actresses, producer and many others who have loved him in various ways. So why not add even more with the instrument-playing women, who enter the stage in the same costume scheme (black-and-white variations) that the actors have (costumes by Ryan Matthieu Smith)?

One-by-one and then few-by-few, all the women enter, actresses and instrument-holding musicians talking with each other. Then, the orchestra members take their places upstage, and the actresses sit in chairs on risers in front of the orchestra. Guido Contini, played by Steve Barcus, enters, picks up a baton and leads the vocalists in the opening Spa Song as they sing the “la, la, las,” as if he’s trying to orchestrate all of the women in his life in a way that makes some kind of sense. He and the orchestra conductor/music director Jay Dias are the only men on the stage. (Another major character we’ll see later is male — nine-year-old Guido, played by Quinlin Sandefer, who does lovely work on the song “Getting Tall.”)

Kudos to whoever had the idea for the all-women orchestra. Under Dias’ direction, they play beautifully. Just to hear the large string section in a song where the strings provide much of the drama, Be On Your Own, is a rare treat.

The women actors all do fine work with their instruments too. As Guido’s long-suffering wife Luisa, Catherine Carpenter Cox’s mezzo is stunning accompaniment to those strings on Be On Your Own. As the mistress Carla, Danielle Estes (wearing a curve-hugging lace cat suit) induces tears in Simple and the most stirring vocal performance of the show goes to Janelle Lutz, as Guido’s lead actress Claudia, on Unusual Way. There are also scene-stealing turns from Linda Leonard as producer Liliane and Sara Shelby-Martin as the prostitute Sarraghina.

The task for the actor playing Guido is playing a man surrounded by all of these women, and that’s where Barcus struggles. He’s adorable, but doesn’t exude the natural sexual energy that draws anyone without a Y chromosome to him (think of Raul Julia and Antonio Banderas, who played him on Broadway original and revival, respectively; and Daniel Day-Lewis in the ill-conceived 2009 film version). Also, on Friday night, his voice sounded fatigued. But he does capture those conflicted emotions at the end, as he finally realizes it’s time to grow up.

Sadly, although City Performance Hall has about 100 fewer seats than Lyric’s normal home in the Carpenter Performance Hall in the Irving Arts Center, and there were only three performances of this show, Friday night wasn’t as full as many expected it to be. That’s a shame, especially for a musical that you may not see again, and certainly not that sounds like this.

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