by Margaret Croyden

"Nine" -- A Last Look

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

Book Arthur Kopit
Music and Lyrics Maury Yeston
Adaptation from the Italian Mario Fratti
Director David Leveaux
Eugene O'Neill Theater, West 49th Street

When the American Theater Wing presented the Tony Awards in June, the season officially terminated. Not that all the shows closed, but the excitement has not been the same on Broadway. Most critics have already seen all the productions, or are away in London to peruse that season, or out of town hoping to catch something lively in these dog days of August. Still many theaters are full and some productions are still fresh. I was away when "Nine" opened and missed its official press date. So I thought to catch it before the star, Antonio Banderas, leaves at the end of September. I wondered if he would be fresh after playing so many months.

But not to worry. Antonio Banderas is a natural. Usually leading men in musicals stand around listlessly; they have great singing voices but can't act. Often acting matters less because the voice is the thing--not the acting. I expected Banderas, who had never been on Broadway, would fall into that category. Much to my pleasure he was simply superb in the leading role, full of energy and verve.

Banderas is really an actor. No wonder the well known film director Pedro Amadovar cast Banderas his movies. Still this part is different. Not only does the role call for singing, but for an actor that can portray the complicated character of Guido Contini, a take off on the great Italian film director Frederico Fellini.

As everyone might remember, Fellini made a film 8 and 1/2 starring the fabulous Marcello Mastroiani. The story is about a film director Guido Contini and his effort at making a movie. While trying to create a script, Guido cannot escape his problems: the long suffering wife, the demanding mistress, the excitable star, the creditors, and producers, and the haunting memories of his protective mother and his childhood sexual fantasies. All the while he has no real script in place and he is continually distracted by the numerous women who can't resist him, and whom he can't resist. So the story becomes Guido's search for a story and his conflicts in his personal life.

Fellini's intriguing and marvelous film--an undisguised autobiographical sketch of Fellini himself--was a huge international success. And later in 1982 it was made into a Broadway musical, also a success. Now the revival.

Back to Banderas. Banderas is a small guy. When he makes his entrance, I was a bit taken aback. He does not have the looks or presence of Mastroiani. But he instantly captures the stage and the audience as well. He is totally involved with the action and plays it moment to moment and sometimes even slips into the background. His songs are integrated into his character's actions not separate from them. He is extremely agile and when he tangos with one of the woman, well--there's plenty of style and sensual energy there. With his Spanish accent so right for playing an Italian, and a kind of charm necessary for the role, he is completely believable, even adorable. Besides he adds a certain boyish sweetness to the role, so that it is perfectly understandable that women can't resist him. Still he doesn't come off as a sexpot but as a troubled neurotic--a kind of bad boy-- who tries to understand his predicament and tries to cope with it, only to fail each time. In a way, it is a rather sympathetic portrayal; even though he is the essence of Italian machoism.

I wish I could praise the rest of the cast, or the book, or the music or the direction. All of which is disappointing. Chita Rivera, though the audience adores her, is over the top in her portrayal of the French producer who backs Guido's films. Looking like she was in drag, and smoking through a long cigarette holder (preposterous) she grossly over acts. Her talking to the audience is embarrassing and vulgar. But the audience appreciates that at her age she is able to throw her leg over Banderas' shoulder. Bravo for that. Nevertheless she could use a bit of subtlety.

The book turns out to be a mess. Full of repetitions and silliness and not helped by the music and lyrics which are immediately forgettable, just loud. (everyone is miked of course.) The ensemble of women surrounding Guido representing all kinds of relationships in his life is counterbalanced by the suffering wife whose appearance is typical. She wears eyeglasses; and is dressed like a public school teacher, while all the other women are decked out in finery which is not very fine--just garish. So the main characters (excluding Banderas, of course) are what you would expect--stereotypes.

I can't say much for the sets. Why did they need that ridiculous stairway leading up to top of the stage which some of the women had to climb while the audience wonders when one of them would slip. And why did they need Jane Krakowski (who plays Guido's mistress) sliding down from the roof upside down--head first--while the audience gasps and wonders how that is done which diverts one's attention from the story. This piece of hokum did win the actress a Tony no less--I guess for fortitude alone because her actual performance as the sexy other women was ordinary. We've seen this kind of acting before--playing sexuality without being sexy at all.

Final word: The only performance that has any merit in "Nine" is Antonio Banderas. Without him, this over rated production with all its imitations of the great Fellini movie would never go. And when Banderas goes, the show will no doubt go too. Unless there is another Banderas hanging around.[Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's latest book, "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000," is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux.

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