Nine could be worse. This isn’t, I grant you, a very enthusiastic thing to say about the revival of a musical that seems to be a touchstone for so many people, but it’s also not a vote for consigning nearly everyone involved to eternal damnation, which was my reaction to the Roundabout’s painful attempt to resuscitate that other large, famously flawed touchstone musical, Follies. Nine‘s design is ugly and its staging often clumsy, but not, like those of Follies, humiliatingly so; here the director and designers actually appear to have had something in mind, however stolid their vision, and you feel that the cast deserves better guidance, not an emergency rescue team.
What makes the whole event ride slightly low in the water is that Nine, which premiered in 1982, isn’t so great a musical in the first place. Maury Yeston’s lyrics only sporadically rise to the level of his tuneful, elegantly developed music; Arthur Kopit’s book struggles mightily to weave playable stage scenes from the countless tiny ribbons of dialogue in the source screenplay, Fellini’s 8 1/2 as translated by Mario Fratti, and the struggle is sometimes all too visible in its blocklike speeches. The source itself is part of the problem: 8 1/2 is a movie about its own making; the movie-director hero’s creative crisis is both the film we watch and its source. But a stage musical about a director struggling to make a film, even a musical film (as it is in Nine), can never embody the same paradox. Yeston’s music lets Nine ratchet up a lot of energy and theatricality as it rolls along, but it doesn’t sum up Guido’s dilemma. Instead, you simply get the feeling that he can’t concentrate on filmmaking because he’s too busy fantasizing about women. Rather than a mature man’s acceptance of aging (remember the men in Fellini’s film who stick their heads out of office doors when they hear the word “vecchio” in the hallway?), it’s his indulgence in a prolonged adolescence, the film’s harem-fantasy scene spread across the rest of its content.
The concept behind that fantasy trip, making all of Nine‘s characters except Guido and his childhood self female, came from Tommy Tune, who directed the original production. Whatever the writing’s limitations, Tune and his colleagues made the performance a triumph of chic, with Lawrence Miller’s all-white background setting the black-clad women, stunningly individualized by William Ivey Long’s drop-dead-gorgeous costumes, in high relief, plus a further visual ecstasy when, as Guido began to shoot his movie about Casanova in the “Grand Canal” sequence, the whole event moved into what I can only call Technicolor. Nobody expected David Leveaux’s Roundabout revival to mimic Tune’s dazzling effects. Apart from his perfect right to invent his own vision of the show, contemporary Broadway budgets don’t offer directors such leeway (Nine‘s original producers actually sanctioned 29 musicians when the house minimum was 25), and many of Tune’s dazzling effects have been exploited by others in the two decades since Nine premiered.
Sadly, what Leveaux displays is the same taste for post-industrial drabness that made his Electra and Anna Christie such limp failures. Apart from a bit of high-tech flash, like the flying entrance and exit of Guido’s mistress Carla (Jane Krakowski), most of the evening looks like a clutter of indistinguishable women in nondescript, ill-fitting clothes fidgeting around randomly. If you care to stare deeply into the clutter, all sorts of details and relationships are perceivable, but who’d bother to study something so uninviting? When a detail does stand out, it’s usually a misguided glib irony, like having Guido’s critic-antagonist Stephanie costumed as a dominatrix. Too much of what’s onstage looks copied from other people’s musicals: The set’s basic structure is Boris Aronson’s Company design with the dressing-room staircase from Follies grafted onto it; an episode of chair-moving recalls Tune’s staging of Grand Hotel. The peeling, dripping mosaic on the back wall, at least, is courtesy of Fellini’s Satyricon—a movie that, however, has next to nothing to do with 8 1/2 or Nine. Tune’s vision of the show wouldn’t be so forcefully memorable if Leveaux’s were a little less secondhand. But the Roundabout and second-rate taste are a time-honored partnership.
What the revival does have that’s first-rate is a set of strong presences and strong voices onstage; even if your ocular attention should want to stray, you’ll find something to listen to. Nor does the eye care to stray, much, from Antonio Banderas, whose physical magnetism is not just an on-camera matter, and whose singing voice, if someone would do him the kindness to train it, could have real music-theater power. Lacking the late Raul Julia’s innate musicality and Shakespearean breath control, he has a tougher time with some of Yeston’s twisty phrases, and his accent often gets in the way. (Presumably his colleagues’ ludicrous sub-mafioso accents were requested to lessen the effect of his.) But his conquest of the audience is complete, despite what’s basically a generalized and monochrome approach to the role; one can only imagine the depth and shading a better director might help him find. (Isn’t it time Almodóvar directed a musical?)
The women surrounding Banderas, too, are largely praiseworthy; thinking through the list can really make you marvel at the effort it must have taken Leveaux to dampen their effectiveness as a group. Here’s wonderful Chita Rivera, who can still put her leg up at 10 to six; Mary Stuart Masterson, warbling in an unexpectedly beautiful voice; gracious Mary Beth Peil, still singing sumptuously; Myra Lucretia Taylor, pouring an improbable heartfelt demureness into the role of a seaside slut. Krakowski and Laura Benanti, to my taste, are more hampered than anyone else by the staging, but make their presence felt despite it—which is, pretty much, the best that Nine‘s good points can do in the face of the production’s vitiating effect. Jonathan Tunick’s reduced orchestration magically sustains, under Kevin Stites’s tactful conducting, the original’s lushness, but even so, given Leveaux’s taste for visualizing everything the wrong way round, the best Nine can rate is a six.
It would be unfair for an adult to rate A Year With Frog and Toad, a children’s musical that, to my relief, feels neither as long nor as ponderously earnest as its title.
My inner child, the only one I was able to bring to the performance, felt moderately entertained; my outer adult found some aspects amusing and others a little puzzling. He didn’t understand, for instance, why the characters sometimes behaved like animals and did animal things, while at other times they behaved like adults and did middle-class suburban things. (My inner child, at this point, muttered something about consistency and hobgoblins that I didn’t quite catch—probably a quote from some fairy tale or self-help book he was reading.)
My outer adult wondered a little, too, why the title characters seemed to have no spouses or offspring, unlike their parents, or the neighboring birds who served as commentators. (Here my inner child definitely said something about fairy tales, referring specifically to Oscar Wilde’s.) My outer adult and I couldn’t figure out why a toad would have problems about staying in the water, or why there was no mention of frogs becoming increasingly scarce on the planet. (We explained to my inner child that it’s not because they don’t marry.) Then there was a whole problem about whether amphibians would celebrate Christmas, and my inner child settled the whole thing when he looked at us derisively and said, “They have to have a Christmas number or it’s not commercial.” We bowed to this expression of childhood wisdom, and decided that instead of trying to analyze the show any further we would just make a list of everything we liked about it.
So we listed the performances of Jay Goede and Mark Linn-Baker as Frog and Toad; the sets by Adrianne Lobel (even though, as my inner child said, she probably got the job by being related to one of the producers, who has the exact same name); the costumes by Martin Pakledinaz (who doesn’t have the same name as anybody); some of Robert Reale’s tunes; all of Irwin Fisch’s razzamatazzy Dixieland orchestrations, boisterously conducted by Linda Twine; and the glitter stars that exploded all over everything at one point, for no reason I can remember. My inner child wanted to vote for the song of the snail who brings the mail, but my outer adult and I said it came back once too often. We asked my inner child if there was anything he didn’t like about the show, and he said, “Are they really charging 90 bucks a pop for seats downstairs?” We said they were, and he said capitalism was a filthy crime (he’s also been reading Karl Marx’s collected fairy tales lately). So we explained that little boys who talk too much often get eaten by vicious characters from Sondheim musicals, and the evening drew peacefully to a close.