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Banderas shines in evocative 'Nine'

| Friday, May 23, 2003

NEW YORK -- It's hard to imagine what anyone would make of the musical "Nine" if they wandered in, uninitiated, while looking for a substitute for "Phantom of the Opera," "42nd Street" or "Mamma Mia!"

Impressionistic, exotic, sensual and sometimes narratively ambiguous, "Nine" concerns the spiritual, emotional and professional crisis of a middleage Italian filmmaker who must purge himself of unchecked appetites and surrender a part of his inner child before achieving a psychological catharsis.

No, it sure ain't "Grease."

"Nine" flirts with pretentiousness as it segues through the present, the memories and the fantasies of the auteur filmmaker Guido Contini (Antonio Banderas).

Revived on Broadway for the first time since the original 1982-84 production that starred the late Raul Julia, "Nine" appears this time as a Roundabout Theatre Company production at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, where a limited engagement has been extended twice already through Aug. 31. Sellouts will do that.

You're highly unlikely to see it performed at many schools or community theaters, who would consider the content too ethereal and too difficult to make lucid for the casual patron.

Sporting music and lyrics by Maury Yeston and a book by Arthur Kopit, "Nine" is a re-conception of Federico Fellini's mesmerizing, hallucinatory "81/2" (1963), in which Marcello Mastroianni played the director's alter ego.

It's set in the early 1960s in the Venetian spa to which Guido retreats, frantic and frustrated, to make a movie for which he not only has no script but also no idea. Inspiration, do gust in.

With the exception of himself as 9-year-old Little Guido (William Ullrich), all of the other 16 characters are the key women in his life including his increasingly discontented wife, Luise (Mary Stuart Masterson), and his aristocratic mother (Mary Beth Peil, who was the dying Yul Brynner's final Anna in "The King and I" in 1985).

Among the others, four are particularly significant.

Guido's sporadically suicidal mistress, Carla (Jane Krakowski), descends from the rafters dressed minimally and exits in a manner worth hazardous duty pay. Somehow she exhales enough to surrender "A Call From the Vatican."

Claudia (Laura Benanti), his muse and former mistress, resists playing for him a fourth variation on a role he always calls on her to do. Her glorious duet with Guido of "A Man Like You"/"Unusual Way" attests to the power of musical theater.

The voluptuous beachcomber Saraghina (Myra Lucretia Taylor), who in the film is a memory of initial sexual contact, here advises Little Guido to "Be Italian." He became, as we know, a prototypical Lothario, so effortlessly attractive to women that moral resolve seems beyond his reach.

And finally there's Liliane Le Fleur (Chita Rivera), the producer pressing Guido for a script, an idea, an assurance he's prepared to begin.

Although her rudimentary tango with him, "Folies Bergeres," is the most overt example of dance in Jonathan Butterell's choreography, the affection in which Rivera is held and the starkness with which the number is staged allows it to climax with an eruption of applause that goes on and on.

During the decades since Angela Lansbury retreated to TV, Rivera has become Broadway's most durable grand dame.

Collectively the 16 women, often welded in chorus, suggest all womanhood -- the nurturing pool of Guido's life and a metaphor for the healing spa he now inhabits.

Because of the one-set, fantastical nature of "Nine," each production represents a dreamlike canvas on which its director and designers can splash geometric aesthetics and bold color schemes.

Tommy Tune staged the show in 1982 upon tiled cubes with flashes of saucy wit and numbers staged as if they'd been cross-bred with vaudeville.

David Leveaux stages his new production symmetrically on a Scott Peck set that is centered with a huge round table, chrome and plexiglass adornments, a cat walk and a four-tiered spiral staircase.

Vicki Mortimer's mostly black and white costumes define their wearers, from whore to matriarch. The design sets off that much more the blacks, oranges and yellows of hair and the occasional magenta scarf.

The severe stylization of such a superb production distracts from the unfocused narrative, which yields to character-driven songs.

The production is full of intriguing imagery, but the votive candles that illuminate "The Bells of St. Sebastian" make incomparably more sense than the cup of pink sand poured onto the floor and washed away only when restorative waters flood the stage.

The use of water is perfect in the film but an elaborate distraction in the theater, where you can't help being conscious of wet shoes and dresses and the eventual receding.

It's not surprising to find Banderas an especially warm and sympathetic Guido, one sincerely striving, more than his predecessors, for atonement and an epiphany.

But if his singing in the film of "Evita" raised questions about vocal augmentation and sound editing studio tricks, he proves in "Nine" what a strong, vibrant voice he has, as does Stuart Masterson.

How well the show defines Guido's existential crisis is subject to individual interpretation. But watching Banderas' gentle tomcat wend through his crisis would be good theater even without such an exemplary rendering of Yeston's literate score.

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