This review was corrected on April 22, 2003.
The lissome ghosts of conquests past haunt the anxious mind of movie director Guido Contini throughout the musical “Nine,” but there’s another specter hanging around the new Broadway revival from director David Leveaux. It’s the lanky shade of Tommy Tune: Recollections of his celebrated staging of the 1982 original are never quite dispelled by Leveaux’s respectable but thrill-free production.
Audiences not exposed to Tune’s magical work two decades back may still be bewitched by the heady pleasures of Maury Yeston’s distinguished score, which is superbly performed by a handful of accomplished actresses. And Antonio Banderas, the sexy Spanish movie star making a bold Broadway debut as the chronically straying Italian moviemaker, enacts the central role with a fervent energy and emotional vibrancy that is always engaging — even if his English is not always comprehensible. But Leveaux’s scattered production simmers when it should sizzle — it plays like a movie that needs another round of sharpening in the editing room. The dazzling highlights of the original, most damagingly, seem to have been left on the cutting-room floor.
Tune’s staging was famous for its powerful simplicity: The set was a white tiled hall representing the spa where Guido is hibernating in order to escape his disordered emotional life, and to ignore calls from his producer to get moving on the picture he owes her. It provided a sort of blank screen on which to project the seminal moments in Guido’s emotional development. The women in his life, all famously clad in black for most of the evening, sat poised on tiled cubes, emerging from the shadows of his mind to serenade, seduce or admonish him. Massed in a chorus, they formed a single teasing, collective female consciousness.
That rigorous aesthetic imposed a necessary order on a musical that tends toward disorder: Arthur Kopit’s sketchy book mimics the hallucinatory structure of “8½,” the Fellini movie the musical is based on, mixing past and present fluidly. Leveaux’s looser staging doesn’t stint on the fluidity — literally, when the set’s tiled floor is flooded in act two — but it tellingly lacks the sharp focus of Tune’s. And focus, it turns out, is a necessary ingredient here; neither Kopit’s book nor Yeston’s fine songs provide the kind of emotional depth or psychological sophistication that can compensate for the show’s lack of a truly engaging narrative.
The set by Scott Pask is a semi-stylized representation of the spa. Fronting a faux-Botticelli fresco are rows of frosted-glass doors on two levels, a sleek metallic catwalk and a spectacular, spinning spiral staircase, from which the ladies who will lunch on Guido’s disintegrating ego descend in the show’s opening moments. (Intriguingly, that Ziegfeld-style entrance and the catwalk, and Leveaux’s use of them, underscore the show’s affinities with Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” and, more strongly, “Company,” another show about a man seeking to know his own heart.)
Vicki Mortimer’s costumes are a glorious parade of ’60s classics mostly in black and white (a nod to the original’s black or white?), each neatly defining the woman in the miniskirt or leather catsuit. Leveaux’s admirable intention seems to be to emphasize the women in Guido’s life as individuals with their own defined styles and personalities, not just interchangeable playthings. But the decision has its drawbacks: When they are chiming in, in tandem, on a song, the women do not cohere into a supporting chorus but remain their distinctive, somewhat distracting selves.
Because the show’s structure is fragmented — Guido’s ongoing battles with his dissatisfied wife are continually being interrupted by memories, or the sudden entrance into his psyche of his mistress, via the telephone — it requires the handy presence of any number of women at a time. As a result, the stage is often so populated by cat-eyed beauties sashaying around that it resembles a chaotic William Klein fashion shoot in a Paris studio, circa 1965. It’s hard to know where to look, and sometimes even to figure out who’s singing.
This is not to suggest the performers aren’t capable of commanding our attention. At the top of the attention-getting list would have to be Jane Krakowski’s hair-raising solo spot, “A Call From the Vatican”: She is airlifted in and out in a sort of fabric cocoon. Krakowski neatly erases the cartoonish contours of her role as Guido’s mistress Carla, lending it a gentle poignance. (This despite looking like Ann-Margret at her most sex-kittenish in a beaded, flesh-toned mini.)
Mary Stuart Masterson brings a fine, cool tautness to her uninteresting role as the long-suffering wife, and her singing is marvelously elegant and assured. Reserved for Laura Benanti, playing Guido’s onetime lover and eternal muse Claudia, is perhaps the score’s single loveliest song, “Unusual Way,” which she delivers with the bell-bright purity and natural musicality we’ve come to expect of her. And the treasured Chita Rivera is treated as such, given ample time to strut her stylish stuff as producer Liliane La Fleur in an extended version of Liliane’s showpiece, “Folies Bergeres,” that lets Rivera, still spry at 70, smoothly finesse her way through a tango with her leading man.
But appealing as it is to be given an extra helping of Chita, that overextended sequence exposes the limits of Jonathan Butterell’s pose-and-strut choreography and the general tendency of the show’s major numbers to fizzle out rather than flare up into the kind of spine-tingling moments we keep hoping for. Another case in point is the once-explosive “Be Italian,” which comes across as a mild naughty folk song as performed by Myra Lucretia Taylor. Ditto the act-two extravaganza “The Grand Canal,” Yeston’s musically astute sendup of a baroque opera. It is staged amid that pool of water, with the women laboriously manipulating the set’s cumbersome array of Lucite chairs, to very little impact.
Some other inventive effects that might strike home in a more intimate theater (Leveaux originally staged “Nine” for London’s Donmar Warehouse, in 1997) tend to get lost on the stage of the Eugene O’Neill: Taylor’s dramatic emptying of a cup of pink sand before the young Guido, or the votive candles the women hold in “The Bells of St. Sebastian.”
Does a new emotional acuity emerge from this less spectacular “Nine”? Not really, despite Banderas’ wonderfully full-blooded performance. The still boyish-looking actor, plying a wickedly seductive pout, is ideally cast as a man who has remained a little too in touch with his inner child. His gentle crooning, augmented by some robust low notes, is appealing too, even if it isn’t exactly Broadway-caliber vocalizing. But despite heroic efforts, Banderas is often undone by Yeston’s more sophisticated lyrics, which come out sounding like instant Esperanto.
And it’s not the actor’s fault — or indeed the director’s — if Guido Contini’s efforts to purge himself of his puerility ultimately are more exasperating than entertaining. In the Fellini picture, Guido’s indecisive philandering was convincing as a symptom of a deep soul truly divided against itself. In Kopit’s transcription, Guido’s just a kid with his hand in too many cookie jars who’s tired of getting slapped. The rumpled ambiguities of the Fellini original are ironed out into familiar dichotomies here, with the nuns of St. Sebastian “explaining there are two kinds of women — one was a whore, one was a wife.” That kind of thinking can get a boy in trouble, but it doesn’t necessarily make him interesting company.