“La Bella Confusione” was the original title Federico Fellini wanted to give his film that eventually became “8 1/2,” which then became the unacknowledged basis for the 1982 Tony-winning Broadway musical “Nine” that has music and lyrics by Maury Yeston and book by Arthur Kopit (with assist from Mario Fratti’s Italian play “Six Passionate Women”).
The phrase translates into “the beautiful confusion,” and that’s about the most charitable assessment you can say of the Manila production, directed by Bobby Garcia for his Atlantis Productions, which just ended its three-weekend run at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium of RCBC Plaza in Makati City.
The beauty came chiefly from two elements: the massive Roman-bath set by David Gallo that visually expanded the stage to soaring dimensions; and the constellation of female stars that populated this scenery—some of the finest specimens of Filipino pulchritude and talent on stage and pop entertainment today, in fact: Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, Carla Guevara-Lafortesa, Cherie Gil, Eula Valdes, Ima Castro, Jay Valencia-Glorioso, even ingenues such as Sitti Navarro and Yanah Laurel.
Whenever these ladies occupied their respective perches up and down the multilevel set, a stunning vision materialized—that of a grand grotto on which the lone male character, the film director Guido Contini (Jett Pangan), seemed to have arranged the many women in his life, goddesses to be displayed, worshipped, fetishized and also, whenever needed, kept at a safe, sterile remove.
Debonair and dissolute
The confusion, on the other hand—well, where to begin? “Nine” isn’t the most cohesive musical to start with, its individually distinct songs for each character or set piece adding up to a sprawling, revue-like (if also stylish and adventurous) whole. That already fuzzy center, however, just about disappeared here with fatal miscasting.
Pangan as Guido, the tormented, midlife-flustered filmmaker that Marcello Mastroianni originated in “8 1/2,” faced a rather insurmountable problem. For the part, “You need a man who is handsome and never seems to have given it a thought,” declared Roger Ebert (quite apt that the best appraisal of the part of a film director came from a film critic).
Both Raul Julia and Antonio Banderas, the 1982 original and the 2003 revival Guidos on Broadway, embodied Latin fire and sensuality, which made them persuasive choices to inhabit the role of a world-famous Italian auteur immobilized, at 40, by a high-pressure life of fame, booze, art, women, money and all that Catholic guilt.
Guido, in other words, called for debonair and dissolute in equal measure; Pangan could do neither. Offstage, this man appears to be the steadiest, squarest rock star there is (Pangan and his rock band The Dawn are going as strong as ever three years shy into their third decade). That unflappable persona, alas, bled into and subverted his Guido at every turn.
Pangan (exceptional a mere four months ago in “Rock of Ages,” also by Atlantis) did sing the score faultlessly. Yet whether he was doing an ironic musical soliloquy (“Guido’s Song”) or tearing himself apart over sin and sexuality (“The Bells of St. Sebastian”), he barely managed to skim even the shallow edges of his character’s ennui and despair.
He could’ve compensated with his Don Juan side; Guido is Italian, after all. (“If you want to make a woman happy,” so he learned as a boy, “you rely on what you were born with. Because it is in your blood.”) But there was none of the charming, erotic, flirty nature that would, at the very least, explain why this man was able to attract this menagerie of lovely, formidable women squawking all over him. Sans passion—libido—on Guido’s end, “Nine” made no sense.
The musical is essentially an egomaniac artist’s extended nervous breakdown, the song-and-dance explosions serving as overlapping interludes of reality, memory and fantasy in his head. One could imagine, say, Nonie Buencamino (Fredrik in Garcia’s 2010 staging of “A Little Night Music”) lending this role more manic, actorly weight.
Without it—with Pangan’s exertions unable to evoke a genuine sense of creative rut and inner aridity—the musical’s resolution, where Guido is saved from self-destruction by his nine-year-old self, felt unearned, the emotional journey that would have justified all that angsty jazz ending just this side of spurious.
Still, if it’s any consolation to Pangan, he wasn’t the only one shoehorned into an ill-fitting role. Valdes, luminous as Guido’s movie-star muse Claudia Nardi, simply couldn’t sing her part—and what heartbreak that her character had the musical’s most ravishing song (“Unusual Way”).
From Valdes’ first two solo notes early in the first act, when she called out Guido’s name in what sounded like a hurriedly primed semi-classical voice, one instinctively felt Valdes was in for a struggle.
Not that she couldn’t sing. The long-running “Zsazsa Zaturnnah Ze Muzikal” was proof enough that she possesses adequate pipes for the demands of musical theater. But there she tackled lite soul and pop; this one called for something quite beyond Valdes’ range.
In the Broadway revival, Laura Benanti’s glistening soprano went a long way toward giving “Unusual Way” its due. Here, not only was Valdes’ voice tense and thin; she went distressingly flat, while holding the note besides, at the end of the long ascending line, “You’re the reason WHY…”
Was it an unfortunate fluke? Perhaps. But we saw the show twice, and she flubbed that note both times.
More than the insubstantial singing, however, was Valdes’ apparent disconnect with the song—her still-unsteady ability to put the musical moment over with the kind of storytelling insight and lucid personality that well-trained musical-theater actors do with panache.
The veterans, for instance—Lauchengco-Yulo as Guido’s stalwart wife Luisa, Valencia-Glorioso as his mother, and the fearless Guevara-Lafortesa as his mistress Carla—were effortless standouts, their brief turns in the spotlight marked by piercing clarity and authority.
You could argue, in fact, that Lauchengco-Yulo was also miscast as Luisa, a part that tamped down the actress’ strong presence and natural radiance. Tall and elegant, Lauchengco-Yulo would have made a truly cosmopolitan Claudia (in real life, a figure said to be based on Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” star, Anita Ekberg, hence Nicole Kidman’s Nordic-looking Claudia Jenssen—changed from Nardi—in the 2009 movie version; in “8 1/2” the part was played by Italian legend Claudia Cardinale).
And, in her hands, of course, “Unusual Way” would have had a luckier fate.
Then again, hearing Lauchengco-Yulo break “My Husband Makes Movies” into a three-act drama of equipoise, protectiveness and resignation over her crumbling marriage; and, later in Act 2, release all that pent-up sourness in a burst of unhinged fury in “Be on Your Own,” one understood why Garcia had to make her this “Nine’s” Luisa. Who else could do the part?
Gil, too, more than held her own as the fastidious film producer Liliane La Fleur, even if one could barely breathe every time her raspy voice threatened to give out. But this was one part that required aplomb more than pretty vocals (Liliane Montevecchi and Chita Rivera were quite the dowagers when they dazzled Broadway with this role), and Gil was smashing in her “Follies Bergere” number.
“Nine’s” sort-of anthem, “Be Italian,” went to Castro as Saraghina, the buxom seaside prostitute who would initiate young Guido into carnality.
In Tommy Tune’s original staging, Saraghina performed this number with a gaggle of prepubescent boys, ending with her teaching them a sly anatomy lesson disguised as a tarantella routine involving tambourines. (The English translation of the Italian lines: “Kids! Listen up! Now you’ll learn the tarantella—the most beautiful dance in the world! The dance that awakens passion and love!”)
David Leveaux’s 2003 revival ditched the kids and opted for a more realistic setup—Banderas and the young Guido moving in tandem as they interacted with Myra Lucretia Taylor’s Saraghina, now a figure even more fleshy and earthy, in the mold of Bloody Mary. The tambourines were gone, too; the tarantella would be danced by Saraghina as a sort of ritual, with the young Guido hoofing about and somersaulting on the sand, exulting in his first taste of sexual freedom.
Garcia not only restored the tambourine in his “Nine,” he also transformed “Be Italian” into a thrilling spectacle, taking a leaf from the flamboyant version Rob Marshall had choreographed for the movie on a vast sound stage (with Fergie playing Saraghina). Now, everyone in the cast swung the instrument, and the precision-exercise-cum-tarantella-jig they would launch into became the show’s most rousing showstopper.
Even this potent number, however, provoked head-scratching. “Be Italian” clearly came across as below Castro’s vocal comfort zone. This “Miss Saigon” alumna is a powerful high belter, but here, against an uneasy fit, her lung power sounded oddly clipped. She couldn’t throw her voice out as much in the peak refrain (“BE A singer! Be a lover!”) because the notes were still too low for her.
A further damper on Castro’s turn was Robin Tomas’ perplexing costume for Saraghina: a sheer, all-black ensemble with a leather corset, stockings—and high heels. This outcast woman lived on the beach (the foreign Saraghinas were barefoot and sparsely dressed); why was Castro trussed up like a city streetwalker?
The baffling visual cues also extended to Laurel’s Stephanie Necrophorus, who, in knee-high white boots, white shorts and white jacket under a ’60s bouffant hairdo, made for a striking vintage fashion plate.
The inspiration, perhaps, was Kate Hudson’s Stephanie in the movie version. But that character had good reason to glam up: Hudson was playing a journalist for American Vogue—a significant change from the original character in the musical, who is supposedly a film critic (“Thanks to him,” she intoned at one point, referring to Guido, “we have boredom at the movies!”) and now assistant to Liliane La Fleur.
And not even a film critic for a middling fashion rag, but the venerable Cahiers du Cinéma! The Marxist-leaning French magazine first edited by André Bazin that spawned the pillars of the French New Wave—Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rivette, among others—would have found amusing the idea of a glamazon (though the word didn’t exist then) in its midst writing polemical reevaluations of Howard Hawks and Nicholas Ray.
(In the Banderas revival, Saundra Santiago’s Stephanie stepped out during the “Follies Bergere” number in a slinky dominatrix outfit, complete with a whip. But then Guido saw her as an emasculating presence, constantly breathing down his neck on Liliane’s behalf, so the fever-dream imagery could be justified.)
“Nine’s” problematic central elements—Pangan’s muddled Guido; Tomas’ disorienting costumes; and Garcia’s fitful direction—would reach their perfect storm of incoherence in the comic-opera sequence “The Grand Canal” in Act 2. At this point, despite the ensemble’s unflagging singing (“Overture Delle Donne” had jumpstarted the show on a high note), the musical all but degenerated into a tacky, campy puddle.
The sight, meanwhile, of Pangan shambling about, hands periodically outstretched to frame the cacophonous goings-on around him—Look! Director in action, get it?—will possibly go down as the least convincing thing he’s ever been asked to do onstage.
Finally, for what felt like an interminable stretch during the “Grand Canal” segment, the two most human characters in “Nine”—Lauchengco-Yulo’s Luisa and Guevara-Lafortesa’s Carla—would be blocked with their backs to the audience, their reactions to the putative semi-autobiographical Casanova movie and its garishly attired cast being shot above them by their shared lothario an object of puzzlement to the rest of us.
“La Bella Confusione” was now plain “confusione.”
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