In choosing this year’s high school musical, acclaimed director John Giresi set out to challenge his crop of talented teenage performers. A run of three consecutive comedies had left him longing to direct something extraordinary, something beyond the standard high school fare.
“I wanted to go back to a more dramatic, unconventional piece which the program was really founded on,” Giresi said. “I felt it was time to kind of go back in that direction, to challenge the students, to do something a little bit more nuanced, a little bit more sophisticated.”
He settled on “Nine,” the Federico Fellini spin-off that follows an international film director who faces crises of both personal and professional confidence heading into his 40th birthday.
“This was a piece that I’ve always been interested in,” said Giresi, who first saw the original Broadway production of “Nine” in 1982. “It’s a great opportunity for [the students] to do something that’s rarely done by other high schools.”
Giresi began casting for “Nine,” late last spring and started segmented rehearsals in September.
Senior Sean Dabney, whom Giresi selected both for his strong vocal performance and refined acting ability, plays the musical’s afflicted protagonist, Guido Contini.
“For that role it had to be a combination of the vocals and the acting because it is a big part,” Giresi said. “When you’re playing a difficult adult-type role in a very adult-type piece, the acting has to be believable. If the acting is not strong and believable, the show would fail.”
Throughout the production, Guido (Dabney) attempts to craft the script for his next movie while simultaneously coming to grips with his struggling marriage. In the process, he’s haunted by a cast of female characters from his past and present.
Giresi said one of his primary considerations in choosing “Nine,” stemmed from the abundance of talented female vocalists he had at his disposal that could skillfully fill out the musical’s majority female supporting cast and ensemble.
“’Nine’ has lots and lots of great female supporting roles and featured roles, and I knew that I had a lot of depth in the upper echelons of the female talent pool,” he said.
What Giresi didn’t anticipate, however, was just how gifted some of his newest performers would be.
“We had a big influx of freshmen which I didn’t anticipate being as talented as they were,” he said. “There were a lot of great ensemble-type voices, and this show called for a large female ensemble, so it kind of worked out well in that respect, too. It gave a lot of freshmen some opportunities that if they could sing, that was a great asset. The vocals really dictated a lot of the ensemble casting for the show.”
Hailey Aversa, who plays Guido’s discontented wife, Luisa, and Emilee McGulligan, who portrays the Venetian prostitute Saraghina, are the two freshmen with the largest roles.
Seniors Katarina Kneer (as Carla), Ilana Kitaigorodsky (as Claudia), Toni Braun (as Lilliane Le Fleur) and Julie Roccanova (as Guido’s mother), all of whom play various women who've impacted Guido’s life, round out the production’s remaining major roles.
Rather than focus on “leads,” however, Giresi said he views “Nine,” as a collective work.
“I kind of look at this really as an ensemble piece, even though the lead is huge,” he said. “I’m seeing this show as a sum of the parts kind of show.”
And those parts, Giresi said, have come together brilliantly.
“I am always incredibly impressed with how the students in my program respond to this very challenging and sophisticated adult material,” he said. “And I know how great they are because I’ve worked with students in other high schools, and I can tell you…the Fair Lawn students are very willing to enter new worlds and really tackle challenging material. They’re not afraid of it.”
Giresi said he believes “Nine,” which opens Thursday night, should be a top candidate to pick up hardware in this year’s Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards -- the state’s version of the Tony Awards for high school musicals.
“I think this show could be very competitive,” Giresi said, comparing it to the high school’s 2007 production of “Grand Hotel,” which won four Rising Star Awards and was nominated for another eight. “They tend to respond well to the more art house pieces.”
To reserve tickets for “Nine,” call 201-794-5450 x1536. The show runs Thursday, March 22 through Sunday, March 25. All shows start at 8 p.m., except for Sunday’s finale, which begins at 3 p.m.
For more information about the award-winning Fair Lawn High School Musical Theatre program, and its production of "Nine," visit their website at flhsmusicals.com