Review: Cherie, Eula add star power to 'Nine'

Posted at 09/22/2012 12:23 PM | Updated as of 09/24/2012 11:10 AM

MANILA, Philippines – The stars were out in full force Friday night both onstage and in the audience for the opening night of Atlantis Productions' latest musical, "Nine," at the RCBC Plaza in Makati, which got an ecstatic standing ovation.

The cast of “Nine” perform a number. From the Facebook page of Atlantis Productions

Actors from various theater companies gathered on opening night including Art Acuna, Joy Virata, Jaime del Mundo, Rem Zamora, Pinky Amador, Liza Infante, Jake Macapagal, Nyoy Volante, Anna Fegi, Bibbo Reyes and Noel Rayos.

But the focus was on the cast on the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium stage, a star-studded ensemble composed of marquee names from the TV, film, theater and music worlds.

“Nine” has always been a showcase for celebrity power since it debuted on Broadway in 1982 with Raul Julia as the lead character, Guido Contini, a film director stuck in a creative and mid-life crisis while shooting his comeback movie after three flops. The musical had a revival in 2003 with film heartthrob Antonio Banderas in the lead and a strong female ensemble composed of famous actresses such as Mary Stuart Masterson, Chita Rivera and Jane Krakowski.

Director Bobby Garcia followed this casting tack for the local production and delivered what can be described as a theatrical event. 

Indeed, watching film and TV actress Cherie Gil steal the show with her bombastic number “Follies Bergere” may be already worth the price of admission. Playing a demanding film producer who insists on coming up with a movie musical, Gil’s powerful stage presence, with a French accent to boot, could have easily put the production off balance, particularly when she emerged in sexy showgirl outfit, showing off her fine form. Her husky voice provided an earthy contrast to the glorious sopranos of her co-actresses.

But the magic of Atlantis’ “Nine” is that despite Gil’s show-stopping number, the others all managed to shine.

TV and film actress Eula Valdez, who cut short her stint on the top-rating soap “Walang Hanggan” to do “Nine,” was the evening’s revelation as the film star Claudia, Contini’s muse. Valdez’s beauty and presence were also immediately felt, even when performing in the ensemble numbers. Taking on the musical’s hauntingly beautiful “Unusual Way,” Valdez hit notes you never thought she was capable of, showing studied technique and control. Her recitation of her goodbye letter to Contini was heartbreaking in its sincerity.

Musical theater veteran Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo as Contini’s wife gave the role inner strength, which erupts in the defiant “Be On Your Own.” But it’s her rendition of “My Husband Makes Movies” that truly captured her range as an actress, conveying the many emotions inside her for Contini from admiration to insecurity and even resignation, while maintaining a happy façade.

The other scene-stealing role – that of the mistress Carla – was performed with aplomb by Carla Guevarra-Laforteza. Her main number “A Call from the Vatican,” is an outright sensual number (think Marilyn Monroe), which Guevarra performed without adding unnecessary, stripper put-on flirtations. Carla’s attraction to Guido is genuine such that when she sings the sad goobye song “Simple,” you really feel her pain. 

The rest of the female cast attacked their roles with relish, from the crystal tones of Sitti’s narrator and Joy Glorioso’s operatic Italian mama to Yanah Laurel’s bitchy film critic.

It’s telling that both Julia and Banderas lost out at the Tony Awards for their nominated performances as Contini. The character is not simply written -- unlike the female ones -- and requires a huge amount of charisma. Despite his inconsistent accent and some goofy moments, Jett Pangan impressed mainly because of his outstanding vocals and the clarity he brought to his lines. In the showpiece soliloquy “Guido’s Song,” which conveys the many contradictions of his character, Pangan brought back the awe of his highly praised number in “Jekyll and Hyde.” And he got even better in “The Bells of St. Sebastian,” his guilt-ridden cries of “Kyrie” was stirring, hitting each individual note in the runs with precision.

For director Garcia, all he really needed to do was to allow this overflowing of talent to gush forth. He could have given us a bare stage and you know these stars would still deliver.

But Garcia placed his cast on a grand set which took up the entire stage, length and height. Tony-winning set designer David Gallo assembled a series of risers and steps to resemble a marble fountain to give the musical a sense of grandeur and worthy of those who are on it.

But beneath the spectacle is a truly wonderful musical. I’ve always loved Maury Yeston’s music, the concept of conducting a female “orchestra” whose voices harmonize so well in the wordless “Overture della Donne.” “Nine” actually beat out the more popular “Dreamgirls” at the Tony Awards in 1982 and now I know why. 

To those who were disappointed with the movie version of “Nine,” which omitted many of the musical’s songs, go watch this local production for a better appreciation of this work. The stars are really just an added bonus.

“Nine” runs until Oct. 7 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati.