Danny Gurwin is a Broadway veteran who has taken his clothes off in "The Full Monty," played a self-serving Mr. McQueen in "Urinetown," and helped bring Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" to musical life.

But not much could prepare him for this:

Gurwin, a visiting professor in musical theater at the University of Arizona, is directing Arizona Repertory Theatre's production of "Nine," inspired by Federico Fellini's 1963 film, "8 1/2."

His cast of nearly 20 women and one man, all UA students, play mostly middle-age and/or world-wise characters in 1960s Venice (there are also two young boys in the line-up). It has Italian accents, lusty personalities, a story that weaves between reality and fantasy and takes place in an era that the actors likely consider ancient history.

Gurwin laughs about the challenge.

"I knew this was coming all year," he says, hinting at the pressure he felt.

On the other hand, he teaches acting, and this is a great opportunity to do just that.

"Part of drama school is learning how to create characters," says the youthful-looking Gurwin.

"We're supposed to expose students to a whole range of styles and projects and shows. ... It's (my) job to give the students the experience they need."

The "Nine" story is about a famous Italian film director, Guido, facing 40 and a terrible creative block - he is to begin filming on a huge project and he hasn't yet got a script.

As he struggles he juggles women - his wife, his mistress, his star, others. This guy's got more women than Tucson has Mexican restaurants.

Guido is falling apart. Or maybe this is just his creative process. He looks to his past for insight; to women for help. The play incorporates flashbacks and some terrific music.

"It's about life, death, aging, sex, intimacy, and what they mean to us," says Gurwin. You know, the easy subjects.

Gurwin began rehearsals by assigning homework: View the source material.

"8 1/2" won Academy Awards and cemented Fellini's reputation as a master filmmaker. It's black and white, subtitled, and has a leisurely pace. Not exactly what kids these days usually see on the big screen.

The movie, like the play, is about the director Guido, who veers from dreams to reality to fantasy as he wrestles with his conscience and his artistic bankruptcy.

Both versions are complex and thrilling.

As rehearsals began, Gurwin and the students discussed whether Guido was dead or alive, what's in his head versus what is reality. It's a question that Gurwin would like the audience to have, as well.

"I hope they question what is real and what isn't while they are being entertained," he says.

While the surrealistic nature of the play can challenge, entertainment has never been an issue with "Nine" (unless you include the overwrought 2009 film of the musical).

The Tony-winning play (the original won one in 1982, the revival won in 2003) has music that is at times earthy, at times operatic, always accessible. We dare you to leave the play without humming "Be Italian" or with the beat of "Cinema Italiano" running through your head.

"This is an opportunity to see a show that has a beautiful score," Gurwin says.

"It's very creative. The way the writers have created surrealism is by shifting styles in the show - from light to dark, Folies Bergère to really dark moment. It should be a really visceral experience for everybody."

If you go

• What: Arizona Repertory Theatre's production of the musical "Nine."

• By: Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston.

• Director: Danny Gurwin.

• When: Previews are 1:30 p.m. today and 7:30 p.m. Monday. Regular performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 1:30 p.m. Sundays through April 28.

• Where: Marroney Theatre, in the University of Arizona Fine Arts Complex, North Park Avenue and East Speedway.

• Tickets: Previews, $20; regular performances $31, with discounts available.

• Reservations/information: tickets.arizona.edu or 621-1162.

• Running time: About 2 hours, with one intermission.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@azstarnet.com or 573-4128.