It takes awhile to arrive, but near the end of the first act of the London premiere of “Nine,” the award-winning American adaptation of Fellini’s “8 1/2,” David Leveaux’s production at last gets the show-stopper for which we have all been waiting. The lift comes as Guido Contini (Larry Lamb) – the Italian film director as amorously keen as he is creatively blocked – recalls his carnal initiation on the beach when he was a libidinous lad of 9 (played by Ian Covington).
Suddenly, a short, round woman who has been shadowing the action takes center stage. A fleshy figure ripe for plucking, Sarraghina (Jenny Galloway) advances on Guido, strutting her creed, “Be Italian,” and offering up her flesh. The boy can’t resist and, frankly, neither can the audience: The unbeatably earthy Galloway, her voice luxuriating in lust, presents a temptress of such vigor and force that she is not about to leave any fantasy unfulfilled.
A glorious near-finale to the act, the number is quickly followed by an image – sand slipping through Guido’s fingers – as quietly resonant as Galloway’s delivery is stirringly so. At such moments, Leveaux serves the surging impulses of Maury Yeston’s amazing score while not letting us forget the often traumatic tale it tells. At heart, “Nine” is about the coming of age of a man who remains a child inside. What Guido must do is balance life, love and art lest his purchase on all three prove as difficult to cling to as those shifting, elusive sands. As the title of young Guido’s final song makes clear, his task is one of “getting tall”; he must honor the child within even as he finds the maturity to move on.
“Nine” is the fourth winter musical the Donmar Warehouse has produced, following “Cabaret,” “The Threepenny Opera” and “Company,” and it shows up the great strengths, and the equally real limitations, of an aesthetic devoted to reconsidering these pieces as plays with music. Those wanting an all-stops-out Broadway-style extravaganza will be disappointed; Leveaux could not be less interested in copying Tommy Tune, and why should he? Instead, making his musical debut after several forays into opera, the director has gone for the emotional jugular of the work – as he has with Eugene O’Neill twice on Broadway and with Pinter and Strindberg, among many others, in London.
On that front, Leveaux succeeds totally: You’re unlikely on this occasion not to be moved by a show whose Broadway incarnation was elegant and hollow in turn. Working in a house a fraction the size of any on Broadway, Leveaux and designer Anthony Ward lend shape and texture (and some extraordinary black period costumes) to Arthur Kopit’s underwritten book while building interest in a self-described Casanova who might otherwise seem all too easy a cad to reject. Ward’s gently surreal, even Felliniesque set, shimmeringly lit by Paul Pyant, consists of a central table beneath a tilting, tarnished mirror, complete with a stage that floods for the Grand Canal sequence in act two – and then drains noisily away during that most plaintive of ballads, “Simple.”
In acting terms, the production is helped no end by the Guido of Lamb, another musical first-timer, whose lean, dissolute good looks combine with haunted eyes to suggest an adult struggling to emerge from the chrysalis of childhood: He’s as much Peter Pan as he is Casanova, just as Adrian Lester’s Bobby in “Company” was before him. (There’s more than a trace of Bobby’s birthday-induced angst to Guido’s romantic reckoning.)
But the fact remains that “Nine” has a score, and a consistently stunning one , too, especially as ravishingly orchestrated by Mark Warman for a nine-piece band under the baton of the invaluable Gareth Valentine. And yet, you don’t need to have seen the New York production to be aware that certain numbers lack the impact they would have if the voices were stronger or the delivery more upfront. Lamb himself just about makes it through – to be fair, Raul Julia in the 1982 premiere had trouble vocally too – but Yeston’s songs are too intricate, the variously madrigal- and jazz-flecked harmonies and counter-melodies too sophisticated, for anyone lacking in experience. By the end, Lamb’s substituting volume for pitch, and the audience is sucking in its breath hoping he will have time to catch his.
No one wants Clare Burt as the mistress Carla to imitate Anita Morris – the body stocking has been replaced by a sheet – but her “Call From the Vatican” is a come-hither shambles that loses diction, and allure, once she starts writhing on her back. Sara Kestelman’s lesbian producer Liliane La Fleur, a swatch of silk replacing Liliane Montevecchi’s boa during “Folies Bergeres,” survives some desultory audience participation, but this is one song that needs far more of a choreographic lift than Jonathan Butterell (who did “Company”) can here provide.
Elsewhere, certain songs emerge almost privately, as if a decision had been made not to “sell” the numbers, lest that seem too conventionally Broadway. Losing out most in this respect is the wife Luisa of Susannah Fellows, who joins Galloway and Ria Jones among those in the ensemble with true musical-theater voices. Belting the opening to “Be on Your Own,” Fellows sends a shiver of delight through an auditorium that earlier had to strain to hear a rendition of “My Husband Makes Movies” sung with such intimacy by the same performer that her welcome musicality is wasted. Maybe some playing-in time will result in properly delivering the numbers to the house. If so, that can’t happen a minute too soon, since “Nine” has far too magical a score for anyone to keep it a secret.