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'Nine' will be a 10 

So says The Rep's Castanera, who directs at the Studio Theatre.

STAGING A TONY WINNER: The amateur Little Rock cast of "Nine."

STAGING A TONY WINNER: The amateur Little Rock cast of "Nine."

The great thing about theater people is their infectious passion. Talk to them for five minutes about the play they're acting in or directing or designing and you're aching to see it.

Rafael Castanera's ardor for the upcoming production of "Nine" at the Studio Theatre is particularly catching, heightened by the fact that he is both director, designer and costumer of the Tony Award-winning musical. He's tired, he says, but he doesn't look it. Instead, he's all gesture and gush. The musical is "a beautiful piece," the cast is perfect, the musical's score is one of the best he's ever heard, and "when you put it on its feet, there's another dimension" to it.

Castanera, in his 14th season as the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production manager whose background in costume design includes a stint at the New York specialty costume house Izquierdo Studio, says he's giving "Nine" — an amateur production — his all. Castanera sweeps the community theater stereotype away: "I'm treating this production as if it were a show at The Rep," he says. Community theater "is theater for the community the same way The Rep is here for the community," Castanera said, and for its company, acting "is not a pastime."

Though the musical has won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical up against "Dreamgirls" in 1982, "Nine" is not often performed, Castanera said. Originally a play by Maury Yeston (book by Arthur Kopit on Broadway), "Nine" is based on Federico Fellini's "8 1/2." (The extra half supplied by the music, Yeston is said to have explained.) It is about a man about to turn 40 who has a wife, a mistress and a muse and discovers that his life is adding up to nothing. The cast includes 12 women (one of whom will be played by a man because of his great chemistry with another principal character, Castanera said), the man (a filmmaker) and a boy, the man's younger self.

"Even from the get-go, you'll know it's not going to be a normal show," Castanera said. It's set in Italy, at a spa where the man is struggling to find inspiration for his movie. "He's struggling, at a crossroads," Castanera said. "His last two films have been flops. He has marital problems. Then his producer starts hounding him." The women in his life — on stage during the whole of Act 1 — act as Greek chorus. It is a musical about his obsession with affairs, yes, "but it is more about a man who has defined himself by doing that and he's lost. He hasn't grown up. He needs to grow up."

The boy is played by Price Clark, 10, who recently was seen on The Rep stage in "Elf." His character gets a lesson in love by a prostitute in one scene, but Castanera said the cast is protective of Price, a "pro" who "brings such innocence and beauty to the show."

James Norris as the moviemaker, Guido Contini, is executive director at the Weekend Theater. He's looking forward to a chance to "compete with the big boys" in professional theater. At the Weekend Theater, Norris said, "I work behind the scenes now dealing with frustrating and technical things, but being involved in the cast side of it is really a very special and cool experience. "We're all doing this together and we rely on each other — it's a crazy trust."

All the actors are from Little Rock; several have appeared in productions at the Weekend Theater, The Rep and the Studio Theatre. "Nine" will be the fifth production at the 100-seat theater and the biggest, Castanera said. Previous productions include "Nuncrackers," "The Last Five Years," "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" and "Little Shop of Horrors." The musical "Xanadu" is scheduled for July.

"Nine" opens April 3 with a special preshow reception from 5:30 p.m. to curtain that will include an open beer and wine bar, heavy hors d'oeuvres and a cash bar after 7 p.m. Tickets are $50. The show continues Saturday, April 4; Thursday through Sunday, April 9-12; and Thursday through Sunday, April 16-19. Sunday performances are at 2 p.m.; otherwise, curtain is at 7 p.m. Tickets after the opener are $20 for adults and $15 for seniors and students. The Studio Theatre is at 320 W. Seventh St.

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