Book by Arthur Kopit
Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston; adaptation from the
Italian by Mario Fratti
Directed by David Leveaux; choreographed by Jonathan
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 8½,
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 8½ 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