Forty-one years after it premiered on Broadway, the wondrous musical “Nine” is finally getting its Quad Cities premiere.
Augustana College Department of Theatre Arts presents the new production Nov. 16-19, at Brunner Theatre Center’s Main Stage (3750 7th Ave., Rock Island), directed by Shelley Cooper, associate professor of theatre arts.
The musical tells the story of film director Guido Contini, who is dreading his imminent 40th birthday and facing a midlife crisis, which is blocking his creative impulses and entangling him in a web of romantic difficulties in early-1960s Venice.
“I’m excited to collaborate with our new film program and thrilled to be working on a show with more female roles than male roles,” director Shelley Cooper said recently. “Additionally, this will be the first time this show has been staged in the Quad Cities – that’s quite rare for our area!”
She was inspired and encouraged to helm the show by her mentor at University of Central Florida (her alma mater), Earl Weaver.
“In the summer, when I looked at the script and score, I got impostor syndrome,” Cooper said. “I thought, ‘I don’t think I can do this; this is so massive.’ I didn’t realize how challenging it was.”
Weaver told her it was the hardest show he ever directed, but he felt so great by the end of it. “He gave me great advice as far as casting, how to approach the rehearsals,” she recalled, noting she had to be super organized for this production.
Another reason she chose “Nine” was to collaborate with the new Augie film program, and senior film major Roger Pavey, Jr., who has worked on many area theater productions – including directing the recent college production of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” and doing projections for Cooper’s own one-woman show “Mary and Ethel.”
“I really want some of the scenes to be filmed,” she said of “Nine.” “He just knocked this one out of the park. It’s just so spectacular.”
Cooper also credited tech director and lighting designer Mike Turczynski for tying it all together beautifully.
Associate professor and film program director Stacy Barton said this is the first time students in Augustana’s new film major, launched in 2022, had the opportunity to use their skills in filming a portion of an Augie stage production.
“As a filmmaker long influenced by the fusion of visual experimentation and narrative realism exhibited in Italian cinema, I’m ecstatic to partner on the filmed portions of ‘Nine,’ particularly since it flips the script on Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical 1963 film “8 ½,” about a narcissistic womanizing film director!” she said.
“Projections have added a whole new element to the way I’ve ever directed,” Cooper said. “Working with Roger has been such a thrill – being a professor, but on this production, we really were colleagues.”
“It really was a wonderful collaboration that I will cherish forever,” she said.
Lots of girl power
“Nine” features a good number of high-powered women on and off stage. In addition to Cooper and Barton, the music director and conductor is Amanda Sherill. She is an assistant professor of piano at Augustana and the professional faculty collaborative pianist.
Before coming to Augustana in 2022, Sherill spent eight years as music faculty at Chandler-Gilbert Community College in Chandler, Ariz.
“I first came to hear about this show 20 years ago when I would frequently play one of the numbers, ‘Unusual Way,’ with singers while I was in college,” she said of “Nine.” “The poignance and beautiful simplicity of this song sparked my interest in Maury Yeston’s work.
“In the music of Nine, Yeston transports the audience member into starkly different soundscapes: the hopes and dreams of an artist, the joy of creating art that people enjoy, disregarded partners who find their voice, coming-to-terms with one’s own narcissism, despair, and finally the hope and gift of finding one’s purpose in the world,” Sherill said.
She consolidated the original 23 orchestral parts for this show and arranged them for six players, “which was quite a process,” she said of violin, double bass, clarinet/alto saxophone/flute, trumpet, percussion, and keyboard (which Sherill also plays for the show).
“The cast and crew have been truly delightful to work with. The students support one other and cheer each other on,” she said. “It has been so encouraging to watch them inspire one another to make bolder and more creative artistic and musical choices. I also really have appreciated the collaborative nature of this project.
“Our director, Shelley Cooper, has brought together a talented team of artists from varying backgrounds who have worked tirelessly to create this meaningful production,” Sherill added. “None of us could do what we do without the support of the entire team.”
“The score is stunning – Maury Yeston wrote just a beautiful score,” Cooper said of the show. “I knew this was going to highlight the music department.”
With Sherill, the vocal direction is by Patrick McNally, and Cooper loved collaborating with them as well. “The fabulous costume design is by Becki Arnold,” she added. “I was impressed by her elegant and authentic style for the costumes. It’s a classy production.”
“Knowing I had these key players were good reasons to do the show, but the No. 1 reason was, we have so many amazing female performers in our department right now,” Cooper said. “Just powerhouse women and I wanted to give them something that would really showcase them, that would give them something to sink their teeth into.”
The leading women of “Nine” are not two-dimensional characters, which are often found in musical theater, Cooper said, noting “Nine” boasts so many multi-faceted female roles.
“It’s such a wonderful feature for our female-identifying performers and for the rest of the ensemble,” she said.
Cooper has loved working with the cast and building a positive, nurturing culture, and building a true ensemble. “There are no divas; everyone is very supportive, and that’s been really inspiring,” she said.
She’s also excited about the choreography for the show, which is more intricate than she first planned. There are four big dance numbers and one main solo dance.
Cooper gave Rose Klinger – who leads the big song “Be Italian,” as Saraghina – the responsibility to choreograph that as well, and said she did a better job than Cooper could have.
“It’s been a wonderful partnership to collaborate with her, also as a colleague,” the director said. “Her work is stunning and I’m so excited for audiences to see ‘Be Italian,’ and know she is the lead vocalist on it and choreographed it.”
Below are some thoughts from some of “Nine”’s powerful ladies:
- Maggie Caliendo, a junior from Orland Park, Ill., who plays Carla Albanese (Guido’s mistress) –
“This show has been a dream show for me to be involved in. I love the predominantly female identifying roles and it’s so amazing to see so many powerhouse performers showcased.
“I’m unfamiliar with the Fellini film, but I have observed Carla’s inspiration. I feel that the musical humanizes her and gives her more emotional depth. She wants to be loved and cared for, and Guido us seemingly the only one that has provided that attention she thinks she needs.
“My favorite thing about this show is the collaboration with Augustana’s film department. The filming process was so exciting and getting to sing and act in front of a camera was definitely the biggest highlight of my personal rehearsal process.
“The projections done by Roger Pavey Jr. add a new level of immersion to the show. As actors, I know it’s truly helped us be more involved in the world of the musical as well as the period.”
- Talia Martino, a sophomore from Hoffman Estates, Ill., who plays Luisa Contini understudy and a featured dancer –
“I wanted to do this show because of the exciting musical numbers as well as the opportunity to get back into being a part of theater again. I have seen parts of the film and our production of the show definitely differs from the movie because of the way we play into innuendos throughout, while in the film everything is much more obvious.
“I am enjoying being able to be both a main role as well as an ensemble member, I feel as though it gives me a unique perspective of the process and of the production as I get to experience the dialogue and solo numbers for Luisa as well as see the full picture and contribute to the show as a whole!
“I feel as though the projections really help the audience feel as though they are really watching a film take place, especially when the screen test actresses are on, it really helps to immerse you into the world of ‘Nine.’”
- Mukupa Lungu, a senior from Lusaka, Zambia, who plays Lilliane La Fleur, the film costume designer and Guido’s confidant –
“I wanted to be in this show because I felt like it would stretch me as an artist with how demanding the music and dancing is. In addition, I wanted to be in this show because it would help me expand the types of characters and styles I am able to perform.
“What I enjoy most about this production is the sense of camaraderie we have as a cast and how that also translates on stage to the audience. The chemistry we have off stage allows us to build genuine interactions on stage as well.
“I love the projections for this show! I think the projections make the show feel more dynamic and exciting because they add an extra layer to what the performers are doing on stage.”
- Sylvia Hughes, a sophomore from Eureka, Ill., who is Claudia Jenssen (Guido’s go-to movie star and also one of his muses) –
“I love musical theater, and we have a strong program at Augie. I wanted to work with Shelley again because I appreciate how she encourages her students to take creative liberties and explore their talents.
“The film and the stage version are very different. Obviously, there are things that you can do in film that aren’t possible to do on stage, which is where our design elements really come into play. I think Shelley has taken some different approaches to our show than the movie, but I really like all of the choices she has made regarding characters and motives.
“Honestly, I’m enjoying our cast the most. This cast is fortunate enough to be really kind, considerate and supportive of one another. Augustana Theatre is an amazing environment to be a part of, and it really boils down to the people you’re with.
“The projections are AMAZING! I was skeptical of them at first, but the fact that they’re used throughout the entire show really gives it a professional feel. Our simplistic set allows us to utilize projections to enhance scenes.”
Tickets for “Nine” are $15 for the general public, $12 for seniors, $10 for employees, students and children, free for Augustana students, available HERE.
For additional information, contact the Ticket Office at email@example.com or 309-794-7306.