Maury Yeston’s ravishing score for Nine the Musical was finally heard in Melbourne again last night in an impeccably staged concert with a superb cast.
Clearly a labour of love for all involved, the one-night-only concert of Nine the Musical was rehearsed and staged at a standard well above concert presentations of a similar, or longer, season. The stage of Elisabeth Murdoch Hall was brimming with 75 artists, all of whom had donated their talents for this Think Pink fundraiser.
Music theatre aficionados of a certain vintage have cherished memories of the original 1987 Melbourne season of Nine, which starred John Diedrich, Maria Mercedes, Peta Toppano, Nancye Hayes, Caroline Gillmer and Gerda Nicholson. Long before the current international rollout of franchised productions of Broadway hits, the Australian staging of Nine was the relatively rare chance to see a new, post-Golden Age musical for adults.
With Yeston’s divine score decimated truncated to eight of the original songs, the 2009 Hollywood movie remains a disappointment to lovers of the musical. This lingering sense of disappointment made last night’s triumphant concert even more of a welcome gift. A lavish orchestra of 29 players and a huge cast of lead performers, chorus members and dancers allowed the show to be seen and heard on a grander scale than before.
Elisabeth Murdoch Hall is designed for acoustic performances, and spoken dialogue can be particularly wooly in the space. While there were occasional moments of imbalance in Wil Burston’s sound design, the majority of the music sounded glorious. Storytelling was aided by the simplicity of the straightforward scenario, which follows a famous filmmaker struggling to find inspiration for his next movie.
Director Stephen Wheat staged the concert with deft confidence, presenting a fully acted performance. The quality was enhanced by the fact that all actors and singers had memorised the book and music, a very impressive feat for a one-night concert.
With the large chorus neatly seated alongside the orchestra, set designer Christina Logan-Bell signified the individuality of the eight key women in film director Guido Contini’s life by seating them on eight distinctive chairs. Costume designer Katrina Sparkle dressed the women in the timeless chic of black and white. Completing the appealing visual stage picture was the excellent lighting design of Jason Bovaird, which gave a grandly epic feel to the stage. A standout moment was the luscious haze of magenta that accompanied Guido’s sultry mistress Carla as she took centre stage to deliver “A Call from the Vatican.”
Music Director David Wisken had prepared the chorus harmonies to exactingly high standards. As performed by 29 talented musicians, the lush, richly expanded orchestrations were a joy to hear. A particularly impressive facet of Wisken’s was his ability to quickly and smoothly restore timing if any of the lead singers slipped slightly ahead of or behind the musicians. (It must be noted that such moments were not only rare but were also surely only perceptible to those who are very familiar with the score.) Intricate full company number “Grand Canal” was just one of the musical highlights of the evening.
One disappointment was the absence of ensemble song “The Germans at the Spa,” a rousing number featuring infectious counter melodies. Despite being a long-time personal favourite, it does become clear that the absence of the number keeps the focus squarely on Guido and his inner circle of significant women.
Energy was raised in act one with input from choreographer of choice Michael Ralph. Eight dancers portrayed pink-feathered showgirls in “Folies Bergeres” and then stopped the show again with a tambourine-accented tarantella in “Be Italian.”
Highly experienced music theatre actor Michael Cormick was an inspired choice to play Guido, bringing a charismatic presence and creating sparks of chemistry with all of his female co-stars. Cormick’s rich baritone sounded wonderful, with a clear highlight being the act one finale “The Bells of St Sebastian” when Cormick’s voiced soared above the angelic accompaniment of the full female company.
Maria Mercedes scored a triumph all over again as she returned, 29 years on, to her acclaimed role of Guido’s long suffering yet supportive and loving wife Luisa. Looking strikingly handsome and intriguingly exotic, the passing years have given Mercedes additional depth in the role, adding extra poignancy to the character’s reflections on her youth and extra soul to her mournful fear of losing her marriage. Mercedes’ rendition of 11 o’clock power ballad “Be On Your Own” was nothing short of devastating.
Silent for most of act one, the wait to hear Lucy Maunder as actress Claudia Nardi was rewarded with an absolutely exquisite performance of the gorgeous contemplation, “Unusual Way.”
Alinta Chidzey was an effervescent delight as bubbly nymphet Carla, singing the coquettish role with sweetness and projecting a strong, sexually-charged stage presence.
Looking impressively fit and toned, Chelsea Gibb made a highly memorable impact with her sole scene, tearing up the stage as the prostitute Saraghina advised nine-year-old Guido and his playmates in “Ti Voglio Bene” and “Be Italian.”
Samantha Morley brought a brusque, business-like Frenchness to Guido’s long-term manager Liliane La Fleur, successfully commanding the audience’s attention throughout extravagant production number “Folies Bergeres.”
Long associated with blowsy comic turns, Susan-Ann Walker surprised with a demure characterisation as Guido’s Mother. Projecting a matronly profile, Walker conveyed the fear of a loving mother who can foresee her son’s future proclivities emerging even when he is only nine.
Fem Belling nailed the rapid-fire lyrics of Stephanie Necrophorus in “Folies Bergeres” and “The Grand Canal.” Angela Scundi provided strong support as Our Lady of the Spa, singing with crisp diction and bringing a sense of flair to a character that is loosely defined at best.
Eliot Renton-Gibb sang with a sweet treble as Young Guido, more than holding his own against his experienced adult co-stars.
Nine the Musical in Concert was a splendid evening of beautiful music that will be remembered with affection by all in attendance.
Nine the Musical in Concert played Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre on Monday 31 October 2016.