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MUSICAL `NINE’ RATES A 10 FOR NAUGHTY, WITTY VITALITY

SHARE MUSICAL `NINE’ RATES A 10 FOR NAUGHTY, WITTY VITALITY

NINE, Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North; directed by Edward J. Gryska, book by Arthur Kopit, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston; now through Dec. 8. Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m., one Saturday matinee, Oct. 26, 2 p.m. Cabaret seating. Box office hours: Mondays-Fridays, noon to 6 p.m. Credit cards accepted. Post-play discussions today (following the matinee performance), Oct. 17 and Nov. 10 (following the evening performances) and Oct. 27 (following the matinee). For reservations or further information, call 363-0525.I am constantly amazed at the magic that can transpire on a stage. Take some actors (OK - some very gifted actors), some costumes (nothing drab, thank you, but lots of silk, satin and sequins), a nifty set and just-the-right-mood lighting - and you have the basic ingredients for a night at the theater.Of course, all too often, "basic" can translate into boring.

But not with this show.

Like a painter with a palette overflowing with bright, dazzling colors, director Edward J. Gryska is getting SLAC's 21st season off to a sensational start.

"Nine" is the musical version of Federico Fellini's film classic, "8 1/2." It's about an avant garde filmmaker caught in a midlife crisis. The central character is Guido (rhymes with Speedo) Contini, played to the hilt by guest actor James Dybas.

Contini, based on the real-life Fellini, is a desperate man. He's got a terrific (and very understanding) wife. He also has a mistress, an angelic mother, a sexy actress (who's more than just his former protege), and a French producer who's anxious to see a quick return on the money she's invested in Contini's latest film.

What Contini doesn't have is a script.

Or much time to come up with one.

Dybas is Contini, a man whose world is coming apart at the seams. Like a surrealistic New Wave film, we're taken not only to Fontane di Luna ("Europe's most exclusive spa") in Venice, but in and out of the reality and fantasy that's reeling around inside of Contini's mind. Dybas is on stage 95 percent of the time - grasping at ideas for a script, fending off his mistress, alleviating his wife's concerns and drifting back into his childhood.

Early in Act One, after battling paparazzi at the spa, Contini sings:

"I can hardly stay up,

And I can't get to sleep,

And I don't want to wake tomorrow morning

At the bottom of some heap.

But why take it to seriously?

After all, there's nothing at stake here -

Only me."

Gryska has surrounded Dybas with a cast of some of Salt Lake's best actresses. The most talked-about performance would have to be Anne Stewart Mark as Carla, Contini's mistress. Her steamy (and hilarious) "A Call From the Vatican" number raised the temperature by several degrees. (If patrons sitting in the front row had brought steaks in their picnic hampers, they would've been well-done by the time this routine was over.)

Doris Brunatti also gave a great performance as Contini's wife. In the first act, she explains why `My Husband Makes Movies" to a crowd of reporters:

"My husband makes movies.

To make them he lives a kind of dream

In which his actions aren't always what they seem . . .

Some men catch fish, some men tie flies,

Some earn their living baking bread.

My husband . . . he goes a little crazy

Making movies instead."

And Brunatti's brief, but poignant "Be On Your Own" was a highlight of the second act.

Marilyn Neilson is a knock-out as Liliane la Fleur, Contini's Parisian producer. Her big number is "Folies Bergeres," in which she demonstrates - quite lavishly - why she's convinced that Contini should film a musical.

Fawna G. Jones also gets her chance in the spotlight as Claudia (pronounced Cloud-ia) Nardi, an actress who's tired of performing the same role in every one of Contini's movies.

One of the funniest roles in the show is Sarraghina, described as "a voluptuous whore." She's a Venetian hooker who, in one of Contini's journeys into his childhood, we learn was responsible for teaching 9-year-old Guido and his parochial school friends about growing up to be lusty Italian men. (Here in Utah we're debating the pros and cons of sex education in the schools. Italians, it seems, have a more direct, on-the-job-training approach.)

Sarraghina's hot "tarrantella" number gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "shake your tambourines."

The cast's other standouts were Janice Smith as Contini's mother, Darla Davis as Our Lady of the Spa, Carolyn Wood as the producer's accomplice, and Teresa Sanderson as a critic, with Dana Francis, Christy Summerhays, Robin-Michelle Stepp and Sharon Kenison as "the Italians."

Gryska has cast four youngsters as Little Guido (Sam Littlefield and John Stumpf) and Guido's schoolmate (Gabe Farrell and Christopher Rogers). On opening night (Friday, Oct. 11) we saw Sam and Chris. They were both quite fine in the "Be Italian" number, but Sam could've been a little louder during "Getting Tall" - or maybe a microphone would help.

Cory Dangerfield's splendid set (a simple arrangement of ornate boxes for some scenes and a replication of Venice in the distance for others), Catherine Owens' lighting effects, and the music (director Ron Van Woerden and conductor Michael D. Johnson), all added immeasurably to this polished, professional production.

The costumes, leased from Seaside Musical Theatre of Daytona Beach, Fla., were stunning.

"Nine" is a thinking man's musical comedy. It's sophisticated and adult, with some mild profanity. There is no nudity.