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A CurtainUp Review
Nine the Musical
By Elyse Sommer
---Review of the Show When It Opened in April 2003 ---
As the screen-curtain rises, the boy cedes the stage to a man seated at a large oval table, a chorus of beautiful women -- tall, short, young, not so young -- descend a narrow circular staircase that almost rivals the one in Man of La Mancha. Their talk about Guido turns into the La-la-la-ing "Overture Delle Donne ", the opening salvo of composer-lyricist Maury Yeston's rich and diverse score.
It takes just a few minutes to realize that this chorus has been summoned from inside the head of the man at the table in order to examine his past and present relationships with women as his" body's clearing 40" and his mind "is nearing 10." The plot is slight enough to easily boil down to two sentences: Guido is stalemated in his personal and professional life, unable to commit fully to a relationship or summon the creative energy to make his next movie -- a psychological omen of his mortality. This leads to disorienting fantasies (including suicide) from which he's rescued by his nine-year-old alter ego.
Despite its Tony for Best Musical of 1982 (as well as Best Score, Best Featured Actress, Best Costume), it's taken Nine more than twenty years to return to Broadway, unlike Gypsy, which recently began previews for its fourth Broadway revival in the theater right next door. The initial production's substantial run at the Forty-Sixth Street Theater (729 performances) and awards came in spite of less than uniform audience response and a good deal of critical finger pointing at Arthur Kopit's failure to create a book that was warm as well as stylish and with an irresistibly compelling central character.
Like the Roundabout's long-running revival of Cabaret, this new Nine originated at London's Donmar Warehouse (1996-97). It wasn't as drastic a re-conception as Cabaret but neither did David Leveaux turn his first outing as a director of a musical into a carbon copy of the Tommy Tune directed original. What he opted for was a cool film noir aura to connect the show more closely to its inspirational source, the Fellini film 8 1/2 (never listed as part of the musical 's program credits at the director's request). The book for Nine actually began with a play about a Fellini-like director which was penned by Mario Fratti, whose credit in the current and original Nine program reads "adapted from the Italian." (For a review of that play, Six Passionate Women, during an Off-Off-Broadway run several seasons ago go here).
Now, seven years after the Donmar revival, Leveaux has brought Nine to Broadway but with only one member of the London team, choreographer Jonathan Butterell. A bit too moody and slow in spots, this Nine is hardly flawless and more than likely to have musical aficionados busily comparing Tommy Tune's and Leveaux's version. Yet this is a classy, sophisticated production and the enduring charms of Maury Yeston's music make it a must-see or must-see-again for all musical theater fans.
Yeston's score is a melodic mix of musical genres -- razz-ma-tazz show biz numbers ("Follies Bergeres "), solo ballads ("My Husband") and duets ("Unusual Way") as well as a whole comic opera sequence (the superb "Grand Canal "). Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations for the larger orchestra of the work well for Kevin Stites and his fifteen musicians.
With his dark and still boyish matinee idol good looks, Antonio Banderas is a charismatic Guido. Though his experience is chiefly as a film actor, he appears completely at ease on stage. His acting is especially good when, before the somewhat unconvincingly sudden cathartic ending, he curls up on in a fetal position on the now tilted table. No complaints about his singing either. It confirms the promise of Banderas' only other singing role as Che in the film adaptation of Evita.
In addition to the central prop -- the lucite table, and silvery winding staircase with its catwalk extension and panels -- the staging includes a second act with a spectacular Botticelli-like painted backdrop with faces that erupt into tears torrential enough to create an ankle high pool. A nice bit of show biz though a hardship for the performers who must slosh around the pool barefooted.
Ultimately, the scenic props that really matter are the women. They form groups of chattering paparazzi and emerge individually into key figures in the movie of Guido's life: his wife Luisa (Mary Stuart Masterson); his mistress Carla (Jane Krakowski); his erstwhile protege Claudia (Laura Benanti); the former Follies Bergere owner turned film producer Liliane La Fleur (Chita Rivera), who demands to see a script for the movie she commissioned; Saraghina (Myra Lucretia Taylor) who initiates Guido into his hyperactive sex life ("Be Italian"); his mother (Mary Beth Peil) who wanted him to be a priest instead of making films she can't explain to her friends.
Mary Stuart Masterson, best known as a dramatic actress, turns out to be a fine singer. She is a commanding and empathetic as the long-suffering Luisa. You'll want a CD of the show if only to hear her plaintive "My Husband " again. Laura Benanti, whose gorgeous soprano I first admired during the revival of The Sound of Music and again during her recent stint as Cinderella in Into the Woods, here plays the more sophisticated role of the somewhat aloof and elusive Claudia with aplomb. Her duet with Guido at the top of the second act is one of the evening's highlights.
Jane Krakowski gives Carla a Marilyn Monroe-ish sex-kitten vulnerability. Unlike the stately introduction of the women during the overture, Krakowski makes her entrance in a white fabric sling lowered from the ceiling as Guido pretends that he's taking "A Call From The Vatican." Her exit is also a Wow!
For the role of Liliane La Fleur, which won a Tony for Liliane Montevecchi, there's the ever vibrant Chita Rivera. Nothing cool about this Broadway grand dame! Notwithstanding an unflattering if authentically 60s hairdo and a not much better outfit, Rivera is a flamboyant La Fleur who obviously relishes being on stage. Her tango with Guido is a show stopper. The rest of the choreography is of the dance movement variety.
Myra Lucretia Taylor is a powerful singer but her Saraghina's "Be Italian" could use a bit more subtlety. Mary Beth Peil brings a nice sense of comedy as well as elegance and a beautiful voice to the role of Guido's Mama. Deidre Goodwin has good physical presence as the narrating Our Lady of the Spa though, like Rivera, she must overcome an unfortunate costume -- in this case one that looks like something borrowed from The Lion King or Aida..
Given the size of the ensemble I'll fast forward with a general round of applause to the hard-working cast (all that up and down the steps--whew!), but end with a special bravo for nine-year-old William Ullrich. He's adorable as young Guido without being cloying. Whether doing a somersault or singing his touching solo, "Getting Tall." this terrific young actor is utterly believable as the boy who will become the conflicted director. Here's hoping enough people respond to the show's noirish glamour, for Ullrich as well as ten-year-old Anthony Colangelo, who plays young Guido on Wednesday and Saturday matinees, to outgrow their roles.
While it took Nine a long time to make a Broadway comeback, there have been numerous regional productions, including the Los Angeles Chance Company's production, a review of which can be read here.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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