Sublime angst in a dolce vita

Top theater in t.p.t. production of musical 'Nine'

by Nobuko Tanaka

David Leveaux, the English director of “Nine,” is not only one of the world’s leading dramatists — constantly in demand on Broadway and in the West End — but he is also well-known for the theatrical panache with which he endows his work, most recently this year’s Broadway hit “Jumpers.”

Based on Italian film maestro Frederico Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece “8 1/2,” “Nine” was first staged on Broadway in 1982 by the American director Tommy Tune. With its script and the lyrics for its 18 songs written by Arthur Kopit, and music by Maury Yestol, “Nine” won five Tonys that year.

Then in 2003, a new staging by Leveaux, which he has said he created to more closely reflect the pure glamour of Fellini’s dolce vita world of 1960s Italy, again scooped a Tony — this time for Best Revival Musical. Now, at Art Sphere in Tokyo’s waterfront Tennozu district, Leveaux, as artistic director of Theatre Project Tokyo (t.p.t.), has transformed “Nine” yet again.

Interestingly, in an interview with The Japan Times this week, Leveaux expanded on his choice of period setting for his “Nine,” saying, “I kept our production deliberately in the 1960s, not only because that was such an amazing era for cinema and for Fellini, but because it evokes a period of glamour and, in a way, innocence and celebration of sex, that is harder to find in our present time.”

Although the 17-strong Japanese cast succeed marvelously in breathing fabulous new life into Fellini’s apparently autobiographical work — whose title derives from the number of films he had made at that time, including one that he codirected — in “Nine” the focus is its lone male character, a popular Italian film director called Guido Contini (Kiichi Fukui).

Not only is Guido’s career in the doldrums as he wrestles with the onset of middle age, but his private life, too, is on the rocks, with his wife Luisa (Katsura Takahashi) threatening divorce because of his constant philandering, and both his mistress, Carla (Yukiko Ikeda), and his longtime leading lady, Claudia (Risa Junna), on the point of breaking away.

As Guido gradually loses his grip, living in dread of the mortality that now haunts him, “Nine” shows us in a series of flashback scenes in which he escapes from reality by recalling his childhood days — with his strict mother (Keiko Hanayama) and the architect of his sexual awakening, local prostitute Saraghina (Rika Tanaka).

Onstage, Guido’s home is represented by a big round white table. To the left, a spiral staircase leads up to a bridge from where women from his past descend and up which he climbs into the realms of fantasy. Below the bridge, and hanging across the back of the stage, is a translucent screen through which we see silhouettes of the women in his life acting out his thoughts and dreams.

So, as Guido — wearing a white shirt and a narrow black tie in the manner of Fellini’s hero Marcelo Mastroianni — is pondering his new movie and searching in vain for inspiration, the women appear on the staircase, one after another, to relate their part in his tangled past.

This angst is also hilarious at times. In one scene, Guido takes a call from his mistress Carla in the presence of his wife — to whom he says the call was from the Vatican to check on the moral content of his movie. With a superb directorial flourish, Leveaux has Carla lowered from above — suspended from a white curtain and wearing only a bathrobe as she seduces Guido . . . as his wife sits there totally unawares. At other times, we see Guido’s ideas for his new film played out in sexy silhouettes from behind the translucent screen.

However, Leveaux explained that it’s not the sexual shenanigans that attract him to this work. “Essentially, ‘Nine’ is interesting not because it is about a man who has multiple relations with women he genuinely loves and who love him,” he said, “but because it is about the cost of forever being an emotional fugitive and being unable to make the step to commitment — until Guido is actually taught by the women he loves that love is not a fugitive.”

Meanwhile, in the second act, the scene shifts to Guido on the set of his movie, and for this Leveaux inspirationally creates a pond, which fills gradually before overflowing and streaming offstage. This superbly expresses Guido’s overwrought mind as he is engulfed by his past and begins to drown in a kind of mental breakdown amid his dreams of loves won and lost.

Described by Leveaux as “a glamorous adult musical about love,” the latest incarnation of “Nine” is carried with panache by its hero, Guido, played by Fukui, whose ravishing good looks are complemented well by his expressive singing voice.

Of the 16 women who comprise the rest of the cast, Ikeda’s coquettish and cute Carla and Tanaka’s brilliant singing stand out, as do resonant singing, humor and superb acting from Mizuki Oura as Liliane La Fleur, the producer of Guido’s latest film . . . and that’s not to mention the passionate tango the pair dance together.

If it’s entertainment of the highest order you are looking for this autumn, then think how lucky you are not to have to go all the way to Broadway to find it.