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Antonio Banderas and company in Nine
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Nine will never be a 10. Such razzle-dazzle, so much bracing music, so many show-stopping opportunities for the right performers. But at its heart, the 1982 musical by Arthur Kopit (book) and Maury Yeston (score) is heartless -- and pretty much bookless, too. The existential angst of its protagonist, Felliniesque film director Guido Contini, is just a pretense, an excuse to saturate the stage with the pulchritudinous contents of Guido's cranium. It's not a pretty sight, for Guido is one of the most callow and unlikable heroes in the musical-comedy canon: self-centered, self-pitying, sexist, infantile, and a lying bastard. If you're going to whip up any empathy for this whining prima donna in pants, you'd better cast the most charismatic, charming, handsome, sexy, and resourceful Continental actor-singer-dancer on the planet.

Well, what do you know? That's just what they did. With Antonio Banderas as the lightning rod that strikes sparks off every woman onstage and in the audience, plus more than a few men, the Roundabout Theatre Company production of Nine at the Eugene O'Neill isn't a revival: It's a revelation. Innovatively designed, excitingly directed, musically assured, and (with a couple of exceptions) superbly cast, the show justifies itself in a way that the original never did. Guido's personal and professional midlife crisis -- he's in Venice filming a scriptless, self-indulgent biopic of Casanova starring himself, and his wife (Mary Stuart Masterston), mistress (Jane Krakowski), muse (Laura Benanti), and producer (Chita Rivera) are all jockeying for attention in his sorry, distracted life -- is still more premise than psychodrama. But this time the scale is right, the people are right, and the moment-to-moment delights of the production glitter like ornaments on the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

From the minute you enter the O'Neill and view Scott Pask's relatively stark set design -- a full-size movie screen (which, oddly, is never used), a modern dining table with translucent chairs, and a rear spiral staircase with horizontal walkways -- you know that this will be no slavish imitation of the original Nine. Tommy Tune's production crowded the stage with black and white tiles (it looked like a huge bathroom) and cubes for the women in Guido's life to sit on; it felt overly schematic, and all of those blocks limited the playing space. The new design is far less cramped, which allows the women to float around the stage; and the multilevel set clarifies what's going on in Guido's tortured mind, literally giving highest priority to whoever's irking him most at the moment.

Banderas, Mary Stuart Masterson (top), and Jane Krakowski in Nine
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
The text has changed little since 1982 (one song has been cut), but the staging is about as revisionist as a revival could allow. Director David Leveaux seems determined to rethink all of Tune's staging ideas, even the fondly remembered ones. Consider "A Call from the Vatican," mistress Carla's hilariously carnal love call to Guido. Jane Krakowski does not erase the memory of Anita Morris' hyper-athletic bump and grind -- who could? But Jonathan Butterell's choreography is wittier and less aggressively vulgar, and Leveaux has given Krakowski a spectacular, phallic entrance and exit, better seen than described. (I only hope she doesn't hurt herself.)

The whole show is more understated than it was 21 years ago, and better for it. Not that the production looks cheap: Vicki Mortimer's costumes are '60s-style black-and-white eyefuls, if less dazzling than William Ivey Long's originals. There are even screw-the-budget special effects, like the flooding of the stage to evoke the Grand Canal. But the emphasis is on human interaction, not spectacle for spectacle's sake. The 40-year-old Guido and his 9-year-old self (William Ullrich, a cute kid with a swell set of pipes) have the same nervous tics and body language and really seem like the same person, even if they look nothing alike. The demoiselles swapping anecdotes and observations about Guido have a coffee-klatsch intimacy, like the women on one of those all-girl morning talk shows -- so much so that we feel like we're eavesdropping on them. And, for the first time, there's tension and suspense in the fraying marriage of Guido and Luisa. Will she forgive him? Should she? It's a cliffhanger, and Leveaux keeps us guessing till the last minute.

That's partly the gift of smart casting. Karen Akers, the first Luisa, had a cabaret-diva elegance and an iciness that belied her wifely identity as a sympathetic helpmeet. Plainly dressed and bespectacled (but a knockout nonetheless), Masterston is more of an Everywoman, especially contrasted with such an exotic female chorus as a backdrop. Her resigned hurt in "My Husband Makes Movies" and her hysterical fury in "Be On Your Own" seem genuine. She sings well, too.

Vocally, in fact, this cast is superior to the original company more or less down the line -- beginning with Banderas, who has none of Raul Julia's rasp or sharp notes. He handles Yeston's rangy, twisting melodies with assurance and persuasiveness. All right, his diction isn't perfect (mainly the fault of rushed tempos in the patter sections) and he cheats on a few of the high notes. But, if anything, such careful vocal placement gives Guido a new expressiveness. Where Julia blasted, Banderas contemplates; he's more reflective in "The Bells of St. Sebastian," more eloquent and anguished in "I Can't Make This Movie." The show's vocal excellence continues with Benanti -- whose "Unusual Way" is the finest I've ever heard -- and even the throaty Rivera, thanks to whom we can finally make out Yeston's clever lyrics for "Folies Bergeres."

Banderas with Chita Rivera in Nine
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
What kind of luxury casting gives us the great Chita in what is essentially a cameo role? Her presence throws the ensemble a little off balance -- obviously, you're not going to pay much attention to some nameless chorine when Chita Rivera is onstage doing the same thing. Still, she does her best to blend into the ensemble, and she makes every featured moment count. After a half-century of Broadway dancing, her agility is somewhat compromised, but she does share a truly erotic tango with Banderas. And watch her milk a laugh out of a grimace, a swagger, or the bat of an eyelash. Rivera is a consummate pro and always a pleasure to watch.

The good news doesn't extend all the way down the list. Woman-about-town Nell Campbell's Lina Darling is a bit of stunt casting that doesn't pay off, Saundra Santiago's Stephanie Necrophorus is just another downtown harpy in leather, and Myra Lucretia Taylor's Saraghina is a disaster. Belting "Be Italian," Taylor's about as Neapolitan as Nell Carter, and the emotional resonance of the moment -- Guido is recalling his boyhood indoctrination into sex, his shaming of the Continis, and the ripening of his Catholic guilt -- is severely muted.

But if this misguided moment stands out, that's a tribute to the overarching astuteness of the production. Musically, this Nine makes the best case yet for Yeston's lush, theatrical score. Visually, it's less knock-your-eyes-out than the original but more cohesive. And in terms of star quality, it's overpowering. These past several seasons, the boards have sagged and groaned with movie stars who sign limited contracts and feel like they're doing Broadway a favor by deigning to drop in for a few weeks. But this time, folks, we're getting much more than a mere star turn. Banderas has done his homework: He sings like Broadway has always been his home, he inhabits Guido with more conviction than the part deserves, and he's a smoldering stage presence besides. What a startling surprise to encounter a revival of a middling musical from two decades ago and find the show vastly improved in nearly every respect.

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