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Arthur Kopit/Mario Fratti/Maury
Think 8 1/2.
Think Follies Bergere. Then think again. The stage fills up with showy women,
from first curtain to last, but they don't bump and grind and they're not wearing tinsel.
They do parade, an unmistakable nod to one of Fellini's favorite motifs. Nine
imagines the world-famous director (Antonio Banderas) in artistic crisis: he may have shot
his last movie. He's out of ideas for a script, though his producer (Chita Rivera) demands
one. His popsicle (Jane Krakowski) expects a starring role. His wife (Mary Stuart
Masterson) wants his exclusive devotion and his mother (Mary Beth Peil) returns from the
dead in a vision reminding him (1): that she predicted his troubles, with both women and
work; and (2): that he is "going to die." Maybe connecting these facts, she
suggests, offers a way out of his dilemma.
This is neither a cheerful, nor a kindly maternal thought, but plainly Nine
is not a musical built to formula. This revival of the award winning show essentially
keeps the book and music of the original, highly successful venture in 1982 that Tommy
Tune directed. There's no romantic love story, no chorus line, no big production
number--in fact only three minutes of dancing (a brief tango by Rivera and Banderas),
whereas Tommy Tune danced. There's still no male character other than the star, named here
Guido Contini. That Fellini loved women is well known. That the man was besieged,
bedeviled and beleaguered by women is the paramount male fantasy played out here to the
hilt by the writers, Mario Fratti, Maury Yeston, and Arthur Kopit. The theme is, in fact,
vintage Fratti and pursued in many of his plays. Yet Nine, oddly enough, serves
up not sex so much as the comic plight of a romantic hunk.
Sixteen women are on stage nearly the entire time, sashaying around
Guido, beside him, insinuating themselves into every moment of his waking and dreaming and
he loves it, loves them--poor, beautiful, harassed Guido is a victim of celebrity culture
and his manhood, caught up in and eventually punished by the force of woman. What do they
want from me, he wails at one point, desperately seeking relief at a kindly female breast.
Adorable Guido. A Casanova can't win; when the women discover they are legion, they leave
There's a world weary philosophy of sorts here, or at least an attitude
toward marriage. It generates the unconditional need for other women, Guido tells his
lover, but not for just one other. Two women creates an impossible situation, he cries,
there must be three for the sake of sanity. At certain moments, when everyone decides to
fake an Italian accent, Banderas looks a little like the bewildered, young Mastroianni of 8
½ at the end of his resources. There's even a Pirandellian moment in Act I when
Guido tells his young actress not only does he love her, but that he has created her,
literally, through a movie image known to millions. But insights into the film medium are
definitely beside the point of erotic conquest, his game.
Guido's current playmate, an exquisitely constructed little vamp
wearing a nearly nude beaded slip, momentarily recalls Marilyn Monroe in a dress similarly
built of sequins and wish fulfillment in Some Like It Hot. By comparison, Jane
Krakowsky looks a baby sylph, but a suggestive tease still works in the same way. Her
delivery of "A Call From The Vatican" as she descends from the flies of girl
heaven (in a sling!) and then deploys her limbs seductively on a table top scores high
marks for burlesque, theatricality, and comic acting. Young Guido learned his way around
women as a boy (William Ullrich) from a plump, gypsy beachcombera brief episode
directly from the film. The beach itself gets a full, high tech treatment as water,
cascading down the back wall, collects on stage in a foot deep pool. Everybody trudges
through it. Director David Leveaux may have expected more to come of this event than
getting the actors wet. Or maybe it has something to do with the show's setting in a spa.
The show could be called a ballad opera. Maury Yeston's rich, lyrical
melodies pour out almost continuously. They carry Guido's story, really a situation, in
which the memory of important women in his past compares to his problem in the present as
a film maker with a dearth of aesthetic inspiration and too much female distraction. (The
backdrop, by the way, is a blowup of Botticelli's delicate, trouble-free muses.) The only
duet, the charming "A Man Like You," by Guido and his wife, shows off Banderas'
pleasing voice and dreamy amorous appeal. No question that this, his Broadway debut, suits
his style. The number that calls on his gifts as an actor, too, is the fast paced
"The Grand Canal," which includes a witty patter song no stringer could toss
Guido's most amusing idea for a film brings on a parody of an 18th
century recitative with harpsichord continuo, very Mozart, clearly unsuitable for the
elusive film, but nice for musical variety. The range of songs, after all, remains tightly
keyed to a book that exploits one, phantasmagorical moment in the director's extensive
career. His two recollections of boyhood and mother distill that same moment, rather than,
say, venturing into biographical incident.
Tubular steel posts and a horizontal platform mid-way up the stage make
a functional looking spa--no white tiled baths here. A spiral staircase on one side lets
the women glide down from the clouds in balletic motion, a bit like models on a curving
ramp. They are the only thing to look at on stage and their fashionable, haute couture
costumes, for that reason alone, missed an opportunity to dazzle the eye.
April 14, 2003
- Nina DaVinci Nichols