Set in the golden era of 1960s Italy, StageArt’s latest production of Nine The Musical will transport you back in time with its talented and well-chosen cast, and a mesmerising performance of Maury Yeston’s lush orchestral score. It’s been a while since Melbourne has been treated to this musical, and StageArt has brought it to us for a strictly limited season at Chapel Off Chapel in Prahran.

Musical theatre lovers of a certain era might fondly remember the first 1987 Melbourne premiere of Nine, five years after the original Tony award winning Broadway production opened. The story has enjoyed many revivals since then, including a fairly disappointing Hollywood film version in 2009 starring Daniel Day Lewis, Penelope Cruz and Fergie (yes, of Black Eyed Peas ‘My Humps’ fame). Don’t let this put you off though!

The musical production tells the tale of famed Italian film director Guido Contini as he seeks inspiration for his new movie, and is simultaneously tantalised and tormented by the women in his life. As an anguished creative soul, the lines between reality and Guido’s imagination are often blurred, and as he faces a looming mid-life crisis he calls on the most significant women around him to help put him back on the road to happiness.

Given that the story celebrates a number of strong female characters and their relationship with one man, a modern Melbourne viewer might assume (or hope) that the plot is underpinned by contemporary themes of gender equality and feminism. As the story is actually inspired by a film that was released in 1963 however, the story is more focussed around the struggles that all artists face with fame, creativity, and balancing their personal and professional lives. As such, this will not be a review peppered with ‘sistas doing it for themselves’ proclamations. Also, as writer Robina Bamforth recently noted the 2009 movie was actually in fact “produced by the now notorious Weinstein Corporation” – but that’s information to unpack at another time.

The first thing that hits you about StageArt’s production is musical director Nathan Firmin’s exquisite representation of the lavish score. The opening number ‘Overture Delle Donne’ remained one of my favourites throughout the show, and showcased the female cast’s talented vocal qualities with sumptuous and well balanced choral harmonies. The ensemble vocals remained at this high standard throughout the show, and Firmin kept the pace of the show humming along perfectly with impressive orchestral control.

Having seen many of StageArt’s productions, I looked forward to the intimate set up of Chapel Off Chapel and the ability to see and hear talented performers at close range. While there were occasional moments of vocal imbalance and microphone blips with Marcello Lo Ricco’s sound design, the majority of the performance was balanced wonderfully.

Accomplished Director and Choreographer Michael Ralph staged the production with dynamism and confidence, and though the simple set did not offer any help in the way of storytelling (as is traditional in StageArt productions) it was not needed. The flow of movement and engaging performances happening on stage gave the audience everything they required.

Nine full cast

Experienced actor Anthony Scundi was a great choice to play Guido, bringing charisma and sensuality to the character as he weaved a tangled emotional web with his female counterparts. As one viewer @nigelstanislaus commented “Scundi has FULLY RELEASED my #SacralChakra … (he) is going to be on my mind for a long time.” While I’m not sure entirely what this means, I think it’s a good indication of how the audience felt about Scundi’s performance as an anguished and intoxicating Italian casa nova. Though Scundi did suffer a small amount of opening night vocal slips, as a whole his performance was captivating and heartfelt.

Alana Tranter played Guido’s long suffering wife Luisa, and her vocal performances were a pleasure to witness, especially the devastating ballad ‘Be On Your Own’ in the second act.

Rachel Bronca embodied the coquettish role of Carla with a sexually charged performance and fantastic ability to make stocking suspenders look extraordinarily attractive.

Although largely silent for most of act one, the wait for Courtney Glass’ vocal release as Claudia in act two was well worth it. I adored Glass’ interpretation of the song ‘Unusual Way’, and the gentle and soaring vocal quality she possesses.

Other ensemble highlights included Bronte Florian’s energised and almost demonic portrayal of seductress Sarraghina (and the scorching crowd favourite song “Be Italian”), as well as Ana Mitsikas’ kind and nurturing portrayal of Guido’s Mother, with a stunning and effortless vocal ability to match. Rebecca Morton brought a bold and brassy quality to Guido’s long-term manager Liliane La Fleur, and her standalone number of ‘Folies Bergeres’ was well-received by the audience. Leah Zilberman provided good support to the rest of the cast as the slightly vague narrator role of Our Lady of the Spa. Stephanie John as Stephanie Necrophorus was one of my personal favourites, and her rapid fire lyrics in ‘Folies Bergeres’ and ‘The Grand Canal’ were faultlessly executed, as well as the scathing and humorous lines she unleashed upon Guido.

Nine cast fans

On the night I attended, Kershawn Theodore performed the role of Young Guido and sweetly portrayed the character hitting all his marks and singing tunefully throughout. A big task as the sole child actor in an otherwise all-adult cast! I also adored seeing his wonderful dancing talents unleashed during his scene with Sarraghina.

Nine the Musical provided a wonderful evening of sumptuous music and heartfelt performances. As a company, StageArt strive to put the spotlight on Australian talent in the community, and this production fulfils their objective completely.

Nine the Musical is playing now at Chapel Off Chapel in Prahran. Visit the StageArt website to book your tickets.