Roundabout Theatre Company presents
If only one lesson is passed down from this theatre season, it should be this: An accomplished director does not necessarily make a good director of musicals. Joe Mantello proved it with A Man of No Importance, Jonathan Kent with Man of La Mancha, and now David Leveaux has taken a crack at it with Nine, putting a harsh chill on the previously hot-blooded 1982 musical.
Throughout, it seems clear that that coolness and distance is precisely what Leveaux wanted. From the set (by Scott Pask), a clinical mixture of metal staircases, platforms, supports, and an almost-fancy Italian façade, to the utilitarian choreography (Jonathan Butterell), to the performers who, with few exceptions, keep their emotion and our entertainment safely at a distance, Leveaux has presented this Nine as such a cautionary tale, he barely wants the audience involved at all.
But try taking your eyes off of Chita Rivera when she's onstage, giving her songs and every one of her lines (courtesy of Arthur Kopit's terse, yet taut, book) renditions more than worthy of her status as one of Broadway's longest-reigning stars. Try focusing on the story of Guido Contini (Antonio Banderas), the dashing Italian filmmaker rejuvenating in an exclusive Venetian spa prior to beginning his next project. Try to care about Guido's attempts to placate his suffering wife Luisa (Mary Stuart Masterson) while maintaining his affairs with his sexpot mistress Carla (Jane Krakowski) and his once-and-future muse Claudia (Laura Benanti). It's not easy.
None of the performers - Banderas included - have the stage presence, the charisma, the know-how culled from five decades of Broadway experience that Rivera has. And when she gets the chance to really let go during her "Folies Bergere" number in the first act, absolutely nothing else matters. She's wonderful, but she unbalances the show. Leveaux has the responsibility to put the focus where it belongs, but he can't.
He has a similar problem with the dramatic and theatrical nuances of Maury Yeston's score, one of the most stirring and theatrical of the last 25 years. From the fully-sung overture through the haunting or humorous ballads, emotional expressions as fierce as any have been set to music for Broadway, and even an extensive 17th century opera parody, Yeston's score is full of blood-boiling variety and emotion-rousing color. Every song speaks for itself and gives its performers opportunities to truly shine.
Yet Krakowski must, during her slinky phone-sex number "A Call From the Vatican" battle with a sheet and a telephone cord; Masterson must wander around aimlessly during her first clarifying solo "My Husband Makes Movies"; the staging of the important scene when Guido's younger self (William Ullrich, with Anthony Colangelo at the matinees) kicks off his lifetime obsession with sex by taking up with a prostitute (Myra Lucretia Taylor) approaches vulgar and discomforting; and even the extended second act set piece of an opera sequence is upstaged by water the performers must senselessly splash around in.
These ideas point to a director and choreographer who do not trust the material, or do not know how to let it speak for them. While it's unrealistic to assume that any director or choreographer will bring to Nine exactly what the boundlessly creative Tommy Tune did in the original production, Leveaux owes the audience (and the performers) a clear vision in which to present the play. The material itself is fine but ordinary, the book intelligent, yet so thin it requires the interplay of staging and music to make it leap from the page into the hearts of the audience.
The closest this Nine gets is the color scheme: the sets, costumes (by Vicki Mortimer), and lights (Brian MacDevitt) all black, white, and grey, suggesting Contini's films - like his personal life - are more artistic than realistic. Though dashes of color are occasionally used, the show cries out for a more defining element that to truly hammer the emotions home, something that will make Nine mean something. As that moment never arrives, Nine can never be fulfilling and provide the emotional catharsis for the audience (and Guido) the story needs. This is not a show that can thrive on the merely competent staging Leveaux has given it; his work is unexceptional, unexciting, and mostly unmusical.
The performers generally do better than that, Rivera and Banderas chief among them. Rivera, of course, is pure Broadway perfection in her every moment onstage, but Banderas portrays Guido's central conundrum (being trapped emotionally at the age of nine and physically at the age of 40) fairly well. He sings powerfully (though he avoids some of the more vocally-challenging lines, perhaps with good reason), and has an innate charisma that works, though his pronunciation of some lyrics, especially the faster-paced ones, can be hard to understand.
Masterson packs a wallop of a singing voice, but fails to make the complete journey from confusion to anger to forgiveness her character requires. Krakowski brings a gentle sensitivity to her role, and manages to be quite touching when not being upstaged by props. As always, Benanti sings beautifully, but her demeanor is too businesslike and never fiery enough to suggest the inspiration she must be for Guido. Mary Beth Peil gives her songs haunting renditions, and brings a fair amount of edgy comedy to her role as Guido's mother.
Yeston's score remains wonderful, however, even with reduced orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, and the textures of instruments in the pit (musically directed with robust precision by Kevin Stites) with womens' voices remains thrilling. The moments when Nine is fully realized musically is when the show's heart and spirit are truly on display, and Leveaux cannot cover that up entirely. But it's difficult not to wish that he - or another director, preferably with more musical experience - would not let it be seen more often.