It is a rare treat for an actor to return to a role they played years after the fact. To get to reinterpret the same character, now with more maturity and perspective, and with different creative direction.
I’ll never forget seeing Ben Michael Moran – then Ben Puglisi – play Guido Contini, the Fellini-esque film director at the heart of “Nine,” at the University at Buffalo in 2001. Directed by Lynne Kurdziel Formato, the production was a pointed portrait of a philandering man and the countless women in his life he had wronged.
When it was announced last year that Moran and Formato would reunite with this text for Second Generation Theatre, the few who likely saw their collaboration nearly 20 years ago probably perked up. It was a stunning turn from student Puglisi and director-choreographer Formato.
She would later bow out for scheduling reasons, but the show has gone on. Victoria Pérez takes the helm here with gusto and originality; she is no second-string director. And Moran, now age-appropriate for Guido’s midlife crisis, couldn’t be better positioned. He is magnificent.
Pérez has given him a playground all his own, more rambunctious and juvenile than the one he last played on. Moran enters looking tired, and somehow drips more blood from his bleeding heart. Pérez’s character work is captivating, especially in the shadowed corners of this immersive staging. She gets the layers of Arthur Kopit’s Freudian book, which frames Contini as an enigmatic artistic genius who can get away with anything because of his stature – but who is still, emotionally, a 9-year-old boy.
This is a complicated text in today’s climate. Correction: It always had been, but now we can talk freely about why. Guido is a philanderer, but not a demon. He manipulates, but he does not corrupt. He’s European, rich, handsome, talented, and this is the 1960s – he gets all the freebies he wants. But excuses are hard to swallow these days, and Guido’s refusal to grow up at almost-40 is hard to accept.
Still, it’s hard to pity these women, too. They all know who he is, and seem willing to subscribe to his terms – and there’s never a suggestion of abuse. You’ll recognize this world if you watched “Fosse/Verdon,” an almost shocking overlay of Guido and Luisa’s complicated arrangement. (What Bob Fosse would have done with a film adaptation of this, instead of Rob Marshall’s ill-conceived 2009 version, is a stinging tease.)
Moran is supported by a binder full of sophisticated women here. As Luisa, Aimée Walker is like a fire-turned-blue, so hurt she can no longer feel it. Arianne Davidow’s Claudia, sings “Unusual Way” – a divine ballad – from the basement of her gut, almost quivering in pain; her appearance is brief but riveting. Lisa Ludwig gives Guido’s French producer Liliane La Fleur all her best flair, with sharp comedic lining. And Mary Gjurich is humbling as Guido’s earthy mother, delivering maternal truisms that sound contemporary.
Kelly Copps delivers the evening’s knockout performance as the smoldering Carla, handily owning a trapeze act with grace and grit. She earns every bit of her rave applause.
Nicole Cimato is a curious choice to play the bawdy Saraghina, the prostitute who seduces a young Guido – the absolutely darling Max Goldhirsch – with a sandy tarantella. Cimato is a proven comedian in bit roles, and a novel dancer, but she’s ill-suited for this role. (I’d have expected to see Pérez don Saraghina’s tambourine, in fact.)
The production suffers some technical flaws that make big dents in what’s otherwise going well. Designer Chris Cavanagh’s staired set is good in concept, but awkward levels and step heights make for clunky movement by this large cast. Despite its many levels, there’s never a clear hierarchy in whose number we’re watching.
Behind the stage’s flowy curtains, Allan Paglia’s five-piece orchestra struggles to land its notes, especially on the leading piano part. It’s noticeable whether you know Maury Yeston’s gorgeous score or not, but especially concerning if you do. This can be tightened with time, but it was not on opening night.
As complicated as all this is, it’s still worth running to. Or, if you’re lucky, running back to.
3 stars (out of four)
Production by Second Generation Theatre, through June 30, in Shea’s Smith Theatre, 650 Main St. Shows at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $30 (box office, 847-1410).