Early in "Nine," Maury Yeston's musical version of Fellini's film "8 1/2," Antonio Banderas, as the movie director Guido Contini overlooks a host of professional and personal crises to dance with Liliane LaFleur, the producer of his film. Given the adversarial nature of their relationship, dancing may not be the most logical thing for the pair to do. But then, logic was hardly the root of the film. In its final scene, for example, Guido danced with all the people in his life rather than, say, sorting out their problems. One way in which the musical, with book by Arthur Kopit and Mario Fratti, mirrors the film is the extravagance of its gestures. When luscious Jane Krakowski, as Carla, Guido's mistress, makes her entrance, for example, she descends, circus-style, from above - wrapped in bolts of creamy white silk. After her seductive number, she ascends in similar fashion, a dizzyingly carnal epiphany. In such an atmosphere, Guido's dance with Liliane seems entirely suitable. Since Liliane is played by Chita Rivera, the dance, though not in the original 1982 production, is a tango. Whether or not it advances the story, it is a sizzling showbiz moment, as the hunky movie star flirts with a beloved symbol of Broadway razzmatazz. Banderas avoids the clichés of Broadway leading men. His sensuality is effortless, and he can heighten it by being vulnerable. Neither does he strut or swagger vocally. His singing is smooth, soft and sexy. When he sings "Unusual Way," a duet with Laura Benanti, who plays another mistress, Claudia, they both caress the gorgeous song. It is absolutely melting. Banderas' accent does get in the way of the patter lyrics, and there is not enough contrast between the arrogant public figure and the troubled private Guido. Nevertheless, he makes the difficult role entirely believable and moving. As his wife, Mary Stuart Masterson has a deeply appealing combination of aloofness and resignation. She sings "Be on Your Own" touchingly. Krakowski is expectedly hot as Carla. Rivera is delicious as LaFleur, giving no indication she was on Broadway before most of her fellow cast members were born. Mary Beth Peil is superb as Guido's mother, and Myra Lucretia Taylor has enormous warmth and verve as Saraghina, the woman who introduces him to the earthy side of life. As the 9-year-old Guido, William Ullrich is excellent. Scott Pask's set is industrial and stark, but well lit by Brian McDevitt. Vicki Mortimer's costumes capture the bravura spirit of the piece smashingly. In Tommy Tune's original production, the women sat on sides like big cats awaiting their turns with Gunther Gebel-Williams. David Leveaux's direction gives the work an enveloping sense of intimacy, though I'm not sure it was necessary to flood the stage to signify Venice. Sometimes the choral singing is ragged, but largely Yeston's score comes across with extraordinary power. "Nine" has been impressively reborn.
The 1982 musical "Nine" was from the beginning a brilliantly flawed success.
Then came Antonio Banderas and David Leveaux.
"Nine" is still flawed, but in the Roundabout Theater Company version that opened last night, the flaws are notably less noticeable.
In fact, this mini-success has been transformed into a near hit - thanks in part to Banderas' superbly realized and tightly focused performance as the only male figure on the stage, a famed movie director facing midlife meltdown.
Credit is also due the fresh, cinematic approach taken by Leveaux, a British director who has somehow made "Nine" add up in a way it never did before.
Leveaux, best known for his subtly energizing revival of Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing," has had a go at "Nine" before, directing a chamber version in London for the Donmar Warehouse.
The musical is based on the Federico Fellini film "81/2." This self-absorbed, self-congratulatory masterpiece is a classic exposition of the syndrome of the writer writing the story of not being able to write, moved adroitly into the narcissistic world of the cinema and its artists.
Guido Contini (read Fellini, or Fellini's alter ego, Marcello Mastroianni) is stalled on a movie he's been commissioned to direct.
He moves into a Venetian health spa with his wife, where - beset by his producer, his latest nymphet mistress and others - he tries to sort everything out.
The sorting out involves his dead mother, himself at age 9, the nuns who taught him guilt, the cheerful whore who taught him to "be Italian" and a fair selection of the women he has loved and lost.
Complex it is, and neither Leveaux nor Arthur Kopit, who wrote the book, stint on complexity.
Leveaux uses a fantasticated setting by Scott Pask, at one point shallowly flooded, all chrome tubing and transparent plastic chairs, a back cloth adapted from Botticelli's "The Three Graces," and a spiral staircase that looks like the hero's DNA, suggesting perhaps that character is destiny.
The faults lie largely with Maury Yeston's Tony-winning score. His lyrics are moderately mundane, and his music, while ambitious and beautifully orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick, still lacks the spark of originality to ignite Fellini's concept.
The musical's other difficulty is in making us identify with this simple-minded Casanova of a hero - or even in believing that such a boy-man could enjoy a parallel life as an artistic genius.
Even the formidable Raul Julia had difficulty here - forget his successor, Sergio Franchi - but Banderas wraps the role around his little finger and challenges us to accept him.
He sings wonderfully, and acts with the shaky Italianate bravura of Mastroianni.
In short, he couldn't be better - and Leveaux has surrounded him with the right, Fellini-esque women.
Chita Rivera may not be a match for the original Liliane Montevecchi as Guido's former Folies-Bergere star turned producer, but she's still a legend.
Mary Stuart Masterson as Guido's long-suffering wife, Jane Krakowski as his short-fused floozy (her circus descent on a swing is sensational) and Laura Benanti as his reluctant muse are all pluperfect.
"Nine" still hasn't the emotional and artistic resonance of Fellini's "81/2," but it's a rich and thrilling night of theater and, in this persuasive staging, simply great entertainment.
It's raining women in the glamour-saturated new production of ''Nine,'' Maury Yeston's 1982 musical portrait of the mind of a movie director. From the moment the first shapely pair of legs are seen insinuating their way down a heaven-scraping spiral staircase in David Leveaux's hyperelegant revival, ''Nine'' is flooded to the drowning point in glossy, exotic images of femininity.
Whether fat, skinny, short, tall, young or old, each of the cast's 16 actresses is a knockout of sorts, styled to the teeth. And floating in this ocean of estrogen, looking like an especially sweet pussycat who has fallen into the cream, is Antonio Banderas, the Spanish-born movie star, making his Broadway debut.
The stage of the Eugene O'Neill Theater, where ''Nine'' opened last night, is already overcrowded. But you get the feeling that most of the women in the audience would happily join the lineup of actresses and wait their turn for Mr. Banderas's attention.
Although the 1963 movie that inspired ''Nine,'' Federico Fellini's ''8 1/2,'' is a galloping fantasy of boyish egotism, Mr. Leveaux's staging feels more like something for the girls (of all sexes). First of all, the show has in Mr. Banderas a bona fide matinee idol for the 21st century -- a pocket Adonis who suggests a more sensitive, less menacing variation on the Latin lovers of yore. What's more, to watch this production from the Roundabout Theater Company is like flipping through a Diana Vreeland-era Vogue while seductive, varied mood music plays in the background. You enjoy the hairstyles, the clothes, the elaborately applied eye shadow and the occasional nonfashion feature, in the form of a gorgeous song or a witty cameo performance.
Mr. Leveaux's ''Nine'' isn't big on momentum or coherence, but it definitely has a point of view: a cool, gauzy vision of a mod, mod world. The overall effect is less reminiscent of a Fellini film than of a layout of pictures by David Bailey, the reigning photographer of Swinging England in the 1960's. This is a ''Nine'' for an MTV-bred generation, used to experiencing its songs in highly conceptualized image bites.
Theatergoers with more old-fashioned expectations can find consolation in the ravishingly inventive and tuneful score from Mr. Yeston (''Titanic''), his first, and brief but electrifying star turns from Jane Krakowski (of ''Ally McBeal'' fame) and that ultimate pro Chita Rivera. Believe me, if you've sat through ''Urban Cowboy,'' you'll know that there are far worse ways to spend an evening on Broadway.
''Nine'' has always required flashy camouflage to disguise its bald spots. Reviews of the original production, which won the Tony Award for best musical, pointed out a hollowness in Arthur Kopit's book and the psychiatric clichés of Mr. Yeston's lyrics. Writing in The New York Times, Walter Kerr described the show as little more than ''a gimmick, top to closing.'' Still, if you've got to have a gimmick, whom better to put in charge than Tommy Tune, the director and choreographer who shaped the original ''Nine''? (It was Mr. Tune's idea to make all the main characters women except Guido Contini, the movie director first played by Raul Julia and now by Mr. Banderas.)
Mr. Tune, who was just beginning to establish himself as a creative force on Broadway, turned the show's thinly spun story of one self-indulgent man's artistic crisis into a circus of theatrical exhibitionism. Mr. Julia's Guido became a ringmaster for a menagerie of precisely skilled singers and dancers (including Karen Akers and Liliane Montevecchi), each of whom had her own pedestal in Lawrence Miller's minimalist white spa of a set.
Mr. Leveaux's approach is more lavish and impressionistic. It has neither the clarity nor the theatrical oomph of Mr. Tune's version, but it does make for a hypnotic eyeful. Scott Pask has designed the Venetian spa where Guido does his soul searching as a white-on-white futurist fantasy, 1960's-style, that is equal parts business and pleasure, with a gigantic round conference table and plexiglass chairs.
Most impressively, there is also, stage right, that long, long staircase down which the women in Guido's life descend in a spectacular collective entrance. Although the stage is flooded with water for a confusing moviemaking sequence in the second act, Mr. Leveaux makes it clear that the real element through which Guido moves is womanhood.
These women, dressed to dazzle by Vicki Mortimer and encumbered by pasted-on Italian accents, exist simultaneously in the present, in the past and in Guido's fantasies. Among them are Guido's put-upon, well-born wife, Luisa (Mary Stuart Masterson); his suicide-prone mistress, Carla (Ms. Krakowski); his impatient producer, Liliane La Fleur (Ms. Rivera); and his actress muse, Claudia (Laura Benanti).
There are also two very different figures from Guido's childhood: his austerely elegant mother (Mary Beth Peil) and Saraghina (Myra Lucretia Taylor), the blowsy Gypsy beachcomber who initiated little Guido into sex and who sings (in an oddly subdued version here) the show's best-known song, ''Be Italian.''
Given that there are 10 other women in the cast, playing everything from newspaper reporters to former lovers, it's remarkable that the fine actresses listed above manage to stand out in the crowd as often as they do. Ms. Rivera, who has appeared in the original productions of shows ranging from ''West Side Story'' to ''Chicago,'' has never been one to fade into the background.
Sharp of voice and carriage, she demonstrates that at whatever impossible age she may now be, she still has the stuff -- not to mention the leg extensions -- to stop a show. Her Folies-Bergère-style number, if underchoreographed by Jonathan Butterell, is still an exhilarating homage to the Gallic burlesque art.
While Ms. Masterson and Ms. Peil turn in engagingly sung, sincere performances, it is Ms. Krakowski who registers, even more than Mr. Banderas, as the production's emotional focal point. Looking like a sexed-up version of the waif model Penelope Tree, Ms. Krakowski manages to commandeer a part that would have seemed to belong forever to Anita Morris, who created it.
Wearing a beaded, flesh-colored minidress as if it were her skin, Ms. Krakowski conveys infinite desirability and neediness in one breath. Like Ms. Rivera, she knows how to scale up a song for the theater without sacrificing character.
And the way she handles the daring bit of, uh, staging devised for her ''Call From the Vatican'' number is sublime. To describe this moment would be to spoil it. Let's just say Ms. Krakowski is this season's answer to the falling chandelier in ''The Phantom of the Opera.''
Though Mr. Banderas's best-known work has been in film (''The Mask of Zorro,'' ''Evita'' and several films by Pedro Almodóvar), he has an appealingly easy stage presence and an agreeable singing voice that shifts, a bit abruptly, between pop whisperiness and Broadway belting. He comes across as too passive to be the ideal Guido. You never get a sense of the imperious, whip-cracking chauvinist that Marcello Mastroianni provided so memorably in ''8 1/2''
But he disarmingly summons the childlike side of a man who at 40 is still, as he says, a 10-year-old within. Mr. Banderas is charmingly matched by the show's other male cast member, William Ullrich, as Guido's 9-year-old self. (Anthony Colangelo plays the part at matinees.) Maternal instincts will undoubtedly be in overdrive throughout this show's run.
It is questionable whether those unfamiliar with the show can follow the phases of Guido's creative and sexual dilemmas as he tries to devise a script and untangle his love life. The diffuseness of Mr. Leveaux's staging, compounded by Brian MacDevitt's dreamlike lighting, often blurs any sense of a central focus or, for that matter, dramatic urgency.
Mr. Butterell's choreography is less about individual dancing than about posing en masse. And the homogenizing amplification makes it especially difficult to figure out which of Guido's many women is singing to him. This is too bad because Mr. Yeston's score, which translates styles from Baroque opera to Kyrie eleisons into a flavorful pop idiom, is first-rate. (No one, at least, should have any complaints about Ms. Benanti and Mr. Banderas's exquisitely rendered second-act duet.)
Perhaps this is all irrelevant, however, to the production's essential selling points. I talked to one middle-aged woman after the show who said she had loved, loved, loved ''Nine.'' ''Those costumes,'' she exclaimed, ''those hairstyles, that makeup!'' I asked her if she had trouble following the plot or understanding the characters. ''Well, yes,'' she said, as if I had asked the most unimportant question in the world. ''But Antonio Banderas is so-o-o-o melt.''
Little boys don't really grow up; they just get older. Freedom and responsibility are incompatible goals. So are loyalty and sexual fulfillment.
These are a few of the suppositions dangled, and ultimately disproved, in Nine, a 1982 musical that seems even more progressive by today's Broadway standards. Certainly, the new Roundabout Theatre Company production of Nine that opened Thursday at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre offers more overt sophistication and psychodrama than the kind of gaudy feel-good fare that increasingly distinguishes new musicals.
Yet for all the elegance, earnestness and talent informing it, this revival doesn't fully serve the resonance of the story it tells. The personal and professional dilemmas facing the Fellinesque protagonist of the show, which Mario Fratti adapted from the Fellini film 8½ with composer/lyricist Maury Yeston and librettist Arthur Kopit, are intriguingly and often movingly presented. But somehow, this Nine adds up to less than the sum of its impressive parts.
Prominent among those parts is leading man Antonio Banderas, who plays film director Guido Contini with a winning mix of gentle vulnerability and feline charisma. Though I never saw original star Raul Julia in the role, I doubt he could have captured the young boy who surfaces in Guido's choices and impressions as convincingly as Banderas does — or establish as uncanny a rapport with William Ulrich, the winsome child actor who plays the actual 9-year-old Guido in flashback and fantasy segments.
But it's sometimes difficult to believe that Banderas' Guido, for all his charm, was ever a masterful manipulator of art or women. He seems too instinctively overwhelmed by his wife, Luisa, who is portrayed as a paragon of sensibleness by Mary Stuart Masterson, and his mistress, Carla, played by a spangled, slithering Jane Krakowski, who at one point appears hanging upside down from a bedsheet.
That's to say nothing of Guido's longtime producer and mentor, Liliane La Fleur, played by a gloriously well-preserved Chita Rivera. Rivera's still-sparkling presence is rivaled by only one other woman in the cast, Laura Benanti, who may have the most beautiful singing voice on Broadway today. As Guido's artistic muse, Claudia, Benanti also reveals a poised intelligence rare among young actors.
More praise is due Scott Pask and Vicki Mortimer, whose starkly fashionable, black-and-white-dominated set design and costumes capture the cool chic of the early '60s and the subtle decadence of the Venetian spa where Guido is joined by the endless array of women in his life. Long-legged ladies descend or disappear up a winding staircase like models auditioning for some Freudian dream sequence, offering images for the director to deconstruct and ogle inside his head.
This Nine may give us glimpses inside that mind — and Guido's heart. But despite its ambitions, it ultimately offers more style than sustenance.
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.