KNOWING THE SCORE Shallow as this show is, Timothy John Smith and the rest of the cast at least deliver the musical goods.
Music had better be the food of love in Nine, because there's little else in the Tony-winning show to indicate why its middle-aged, three-timing protagonist is such a chick magnet. If Nine were its inspiration, 8-½, and creatively blocked film director Guido Contini were a more buyable stand-in for Federico Fellini, his attraction might stand up to his self-indulgence and give the show a worthy center. As it is, what the musical has, besides high style and a spotlight to shine on its women, is Murray Yeston's alternately saucy and emotionally compelling score, which draws on sources ranging from Broadway and opera buffa to the cancan and the Catholic Church. The good news is that, in the SpeakEasy Stage Company revival (at the Calderwood Pavilion through February 20), it's very capably sung. And leading the melodic justification for this shallow if overheated work is Timothy John Smith, whose Guido may not exude the sexual charisma of a Raúl Juliá or an Antonio Banderas but whose singing voice is as robust as Guido's ego.
Okay, no one is going to put Nine in a class with 8-½ — that would be like comparing La Mancha to La strada. But the musical has proved it has legs. Not only did Tommy Tune's original 1982 Broadway staging (with Juliá) win a Tony, but so did the 2003 revival (with Banderas) directed by David Leveaux. And the 2009 film, directed by Rob Marshall and starring Daniel Day-Lewis and an international phone book of female stars, was nominated for three Oscars. Someone obviously finds this showboating material more compelling than I do.
Like 8-½, Nine is set at an Italian spa and inside the head of the man who has come here to make a movie he hasn't made up yet. But the musical's dramatis personae consist of Guido, his childhood self, and the women in his life past and present. A famous director whose previous three films have tanked, he has signed a contract with female film producer Liliane LaFleur, who has tracked him and long-suffering wife Luisa to the spa, as has Guido's bombshell of a mistress, Carla. Eventually the director's elegant actress muse, Claudia, will show up as well — along with the ghosts of his tenderly censorious mother, the nuns who terrified him as a child, and Saraghina, the ample and lusty prostitute who introduced his nine-year-old self to his desires by means of a suggestive tarantella danced on the beach. The stink of Madonna/whore dichotomy wafts through the show like a second score.
This does not stop composer/lyricist Yeston, underperforming librettist Arthur Kopit, and SpeakEasy artistic director Paul Daigneault from cobbling a show out of Guido's breakdown. Anchored by Smith's full-throated if unraveling bravura and Aimee Doherty's melancholic dignity as the wife at the end of her tether, it's still more a string of theatrical numbers than a cohesive musical. Some of these are filler; others are sensational, among them Maureen Keiller's prance through Liliane LaFleur's French-inflected "Folies Bergère," in which the producer returns to the Paris haunt of her youth to rope impressionable Young Guido into her act with a boa, and "A Man like You"/"Unusual Way," the beautiful duet between Smith's Guido and Jennifer Ellis's Claudia that opens the second act.