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Nine in 2003

Matthew Murray gives a close listen to PS Classics' cast album of the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of Nine. logo
With soaring, pulsing melodies in styles running the gamut from French musical hall to Italian opera, the score of Nine offers variety as one of its many pleasures. Maury Yeston's 1982 Tony-winning work paints landscapes with music and lyrics in much the same way that an artist works with oil and canvas. Whether in the theater or on disc, the score is a thrilling and fulfilling listen.

But time and economics seldom prove felicitous to revivals, and so the cast albums of those revivals frequently suffer in comparison to the original recordings. The new PS Classics disc of the 2003 revival of Nine is no exception. The show features significant reductions from the original in the size of both cast and orchestra. While this is less obvious in the theater, it gives the CD a thin, often sedated sound -- though that's not the fault of music director Kevin Stites, who does a fine job. Like the revival itself, the recording is acceptable but little more, seldom succeeding in capturing the true power and beauty of Yeston's music.

The situation is nowhere more evident than in the opening number, the bewitching "Overture delle Donne." Happily, it's of less importance elsewhere, and Yeston's score has found expert interpreters in some of the revival's cast members. Chief among them is star Antonio Banderas as Guido Contini, the 40-year-old Italian filmmaker with more women around him than he can (or should) handle. Though his diction is sometimes dicey, Banderas's voice is strong and resilient, and he handles the rangey role with an ease not displayed by Raul Julia on the original cast recording. From "Guido's Song," in which he confronts the duality of his personality, through the extravagant opera comique sequence "The Grand Canal" late in the show and on to the dramatic breakdown of "I Can't Make This Movie," Banderas hits the right notes -- dramatic and musical -- from beginning to end. His singing is always colorful and often exciting, more than doing justice to the music.

Mary Stuart Masterson, in the role of Guido's long-suffering wife, had hefty shoes to fill: Original star Karen Akers gave a smoky, distinctive performance of the character's smoldering songs. But Masterson displays a great deal more energy in her songs, utilizing a voice powerful enough to surprise those who are familiar with her primarily through her film work. "Be On Your Own," her anguished cry to Guido after one too many betrayals, packs a strong punch. Masterson's earlier solo, "My Husband Makes Movies," is a little less assured but still credible and well voiced.

Chita Rivera and Mary Beth Peil, in the roles of Guido's demanding film producer and well-meaning mother, have very nice moments in "Folies Bergères" and the title song, respectively; Rivera's performance is energetic and intelligent while Peil's singing is a bit uneven, attractive but not beautiful. (These songs and a couple of others, such as Jane Krakowski's "A Call From the Vatican," have had their original keys lowered to better suit the performers' voices.) As Guido's youthful muse, Laura Benanti sounds wonderful in the show's best-known song, "Unusual Way," though her uneven Italian accent is somewhat distracting. Saundra Santiago's counterpoint section in "Folies Bergères" is underpowered -- much like the reconfigured "Be Italian," a seduction song performed by Myra Lucretia Taylor to limited effect.

Still, without the rest of the production behind it, this Nine comes off pretty well. All that remains of David Leveaux's work on the show are the self-indulgent, nearly incomprehensible director's notes he provides to open the CD booklet. These are laughable for the unnecessarily florid language employed: e.g., "Music is not musical, any more than verse is always poetry" and "There is a world of difference between varieties of love and variations on love." But the notes can be forgiven because the booklet is, otherwise, beautifully produced. PS Classics always does excellent work but the company has really outdone itself here; the generous booklet includes lots of color photos (Scott Pask's dynamic fresco from the show's set design even makes an appearance on the back cover) plus complete lyrics to all of the songs. (The little bits of Arthur Kopit's dialogue spoken on the recording are not printed.) The only real annoyance here is that the disc's track list is buried a few pages into the booklet, which is inconvenient for the listener.

While the new Nine CD is a must for fans of the revival and its stars, it pales in comparison to Sony's remastered re-release of the original 1982 cast recording, which boasts six more cast members and approximately 10 more musicians playing Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations. (Tunick provided his own effective yet unavoidably disappointing reductions for the revival; some shows augment their orchestras for cast album purposes but, unfortunately, this is not the case with the PS Classics recording.)

On the Sony disc, this score gets the lush, sweeping performance it richly deserves. The two disc re-release of the original cast album is also more complete, featuring a few musical sequences (including "Movie Themes" and the show's lovely second act waltz) that are not included on the single, 79-minute PS Classics disc, plus the "Germans at the Spa" number that was cut from the revival. The 1982 recording rates much higher than the new one, but Maury Yeston's score for Nine is a solid 10 either way.

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