Nine The Musical

Review by Adam Blair

Book by Arthur Kopit
Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston; adaptation from the Italian by Mario Fratti
Directed by David Leveaux; choreographed by Jonathan Butterell
With Antonio Banderas, Laura Benanti, Jane Krakowski, Mary Stuart Masterson, Chita Rivera, and featuring Mary Beth Peil and Myra Lucretia Taylor
At the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York City

When Nine The Musical (as opposed to the number?) had its original Broadway run about 20 years ago, the late, great critic Walter Kerr used one of his Sunday New York Times think pieces to trace the show's development and distillation. Kerr noted that the musical was based on Fellini's film , which is about a film director looking for the subject of his next film. So Nine - The Musical - was a musical from a film about a film director looking for the subject of his next film - which might possibly be a musical. Kerr's point was that all this navel-gazing introspection and reflected reflections had to stop somewhere. I'm paraphrasing, but he said "At some point, someone had better come up with an actual idea for a story."

I think Walter was actually poking fun at the charmingly monstrous self-indulgences of Fellini (who had nothing to do with the musical in either incarnation) than chiding the musical's creators. But be that as it may, I believe his criticism is applicable, from beyond the grave as it were, to the Roundabout Theatre Company's current revival of Nine.

It's not that the production is bad; in fact, some individual numbers and the performers who bring them to life are brilliant. Maury Yeston's score is still tantalizingly rich, his lyrics still amusing and heartbreaking in turn. The musical has been intelligently if somewhat coldly directed by David Leveaux, with a fascinating, flexible set design (by Scott Pask) and cinematically dramatic lighting by Brian McDevitt.

Yet Nine doesn't truly build to the kind of power that a musical can deliver. What's weak about the show is that it really is, at heart, yet another male midlife crisis story. Granted, the male in question is not an ordinary man. Guido Contini (Antonio Banderas) is a famous, exuberantly gifted film director who is simultaneously racing to come up with an idea for his next film before the imminent arrival of the cast and crew, while also juggling a wife, a mistress, a former and possibly future actress/Muse, not to mention memories of his guilt-drenched Catholic boyhood and the general phantasmagoria he carries around in his teeming, hyperactive imagination.

Banderas can sing, and his matinee-idol looks and puppyish sex appeal are put to good use in portraying a character who has grown old but resolutely refuses to grow up. The problem is that Banderas is so much the little boy - a kind of Peter Panini - that we get his anxiety but not his real anguish. Without that core of grown-up angst, it's hard to care about Guido's doubts and torments.

What we get instead are several showstoppers, especially in the first act. Jane Krakowski channels the sultriness of Marilyn Monroe and the goofiness of the young Goldie Hawn with the show's hottest number, "A Call from the Vatican." Krakowski has the sexiness that this production mostly lacks; even Myra Lucretia Taylor's earthy Saraghina brings more spirit than flesh to "Be Italian."

As Guido's long-suffering wife Luisa, Mary Stuart Masterson brings a fine voice and considerable acting talent to the role, although she seems uncomfortable onstage (she doesn't seem to know what to do with her hands, a distraction during both her big numbers). Chita Rivera is a showstopper all by herself, and she gets a wonderful showcase in the extended "Folies Bergeres" number. Now this is someone who is comfortable onstage. I'm loath to say they should have trimmed a living legend's song, but it's a showstopper in the bad sense too - it stops things dead when we should be learning more about Guido and the women who love him too much.

Director Leveaux does a better job overall than in his last assignment for the Roundabout, a badly cast botch of Harold Pinter's Betrayal that featured Juliette Binoche as an adulterous Englishwoman (huh?). He is smart enough to let most of Yeston's score play without too many distractions, beyond the over-miking that's endemic all over Broadway.

And Leveaux's strong visual sense brings something fresh to this production. In the second act, when Guido finally finds an idea for his film, the central playing area fills with water (the action takes place at a chic Venetian spa). But as in itself, this visual exuberance is in the service of some pretty pedestrian ideas. The water that everyone splashes around in does nothing to cleanse Guido's soul. The stain of his childhood encounter with the whorish Saraghina (signified by the residue of red sand in the middle of the tiled swimming pool) is still there despite all the water that washes over it. Oh man, that Catholic guilt will ruin your life no matter how many women you sleep with or how much money you make.

So yes, someone did finally get an idea, or several, but they still weren't enough. The audience I saw the show with ate the whole thing up with a spoon, but I left Nine feeling underfed.

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