New York Times Review – Nine

New York Times Review

A New Cad and Fresh Fantasy Signorinas
By Ben Brantley

Think of it as music to watch girls by. Or if you prefer, as women to hear music with. But if your priorities are visual or aural, you should still be able to have a perfectly good time at the newly recast Broadway revival of “Nine” at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, even now that Antonio Banderas, its original leading man and box-office magnet, has left.

True, John Stamos, Mr. Banderas’s spirited replacement, doesn’t wear the role of Guido Contini, the egomaniacal movie director, with the ease or conviction of his predecessor. For one thing, Mr. Stamos, the boyish star of the sitcom “Full House,” sports his assumed Italian accent as if it were a goofy party hat.

Yet watching the director David Leveaux’s glossy reconception of this 1982 musical without Mr. Banderas, you may come to the conclusion that Guido is not what the show is primarily about, despite evidence to the contrary. Inspired by the Fellini movie “8 1/2,” which is (along with Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz”) the most self-infatuated self-portrait in film history, “Nine” does tell the story of one fatally attractive man’s nervous breakdown.

Curiously, though, in this collaboration by Arthur Kopit (book) and Maury Yeston (songs) it is less what Guido is than what Guido sees and hears that matters. Trying to deal with a creative block and the demands of too many women, Guido seeks refuge at a Venetian spa, where he sinks into sensual reveries.

Even with Mr. Banderas (and Raul Julia in 1982), Guido never seemed to be much more than a hotblooded psychological construct. It’s Guido’s dazzlingly dressed girls, who swim between fantasy and reality to the fluid beat of Mr. Yeston’s lyrical score, who exist in living color. And the creators of this revival have done their best to keep its population of signorinas as vibrant as possible.

Start with an image guaranteed to inspire frissons: Eartha Kitt, wearing nothing but a corsetlike outfit and boots. Though she is now on the far side of 70, Ms. Kitt still purrs and vamps as carnivorously as she must have when she provided the sex appeal in Orson Welles’s traveling revue five decades ago.

Replacing Chita Rivera as Liliane La Fleur, the French film producer and former Folies-Bergère star, Ms. Kitt does not dance in the high-kicking style of Ms. Rivera. But she sings like a guttural, electrified clarinet. And she struts with enough skin-flashing confidence to humble any mere man. She is, in other words, a sideshow unto herself.

Those who prefer gentler forms of seduction will appreciate Rebecca Luker, who has taken over from Laura Benanti as Claudia, Guido’s favorite actress and muse. Her accent sounds more Ingrid Bergman than Claudia Cardinale, but this doesn’t matter when her glittering soprano takes over, especially in Mr. Yeston’s beautiful introspective ballads, “A Man Like You” and “Unusual Way.”

Another newcomer is Marni Nixon (best known for dubbing the voices of Audrey Hepburn, Deborah Kerr and Natalie Wood in movie musicals) as Guido’s elegant, fondly disapproving mother. But it’s a relatively unknown performer, Sara Gettelfinger, who is arousing the most interest among Broadway cognoscenti.

Ms. Gettelfinger had been the understudy for the role of Guido’s sexually overcharged mistress, Carla, a part that the sublime Jane Krakowski won a Tony for this year. When Jenna Elfman, of the sitcom “Dharma and Greg,” was dropped during rehearsals as Ms. Krakowski’s replacement amid noisy publicity, the understudy classically stepped in.

It is to Ms. Gettelfinger’s advantage that she looks very little like Ms. Krakowski, who played Carla as a breakable doll. The taller, more voluptuous Ms. Gettelfinger brings to mind the defiantly unbreakable Gina Lollobrigida. This is a more robust, buoyant Carla. She’s fun, but you never worry about her as you did with Ms. Krakowski.

This means that the show’s sentimental center has shifted from Carla to Luisa, Guido’s sardonic and long-put-upon wife. Fortunately, Mary Stuart Masterson remains in the part, and she has blossomed spectacularly. Both her voice and characterization have a new warmth and suppleness that seem to shimmer with high marital ambivalence. And the explanatory song “My Husband Makes Movies” feels newly self-revelatory.

She is an anchor for the antic Mr. Stamos, who seems to sober up in her presence, and for a show that has never been big on coherence or momentum.

After seeing “Nine” in the spring, I was sorry that Guido hadn’t run off with the heartbroken Carla. This time I think he made the right choice in staying with his deliciously rejuvenated wife.