Banderas, 42, is taking the role of movie director Guido Contini, a character based on Italian director Federico Fellini from whose 1963 classic film "8 1/2" the musical was adapted by Arthur Kopit. Raul Julia played Contini in the original 1982 Broadway production directed by Tommy Tune that won the Tony Award for best musical.
David Leveau of the London-New York theater axis has directed the revival at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, having previously revived the musical in London seven years ago. It was his idea of cast Banderas as the consummate Latin lover, although the film actor hadn't appeared on the stage since he left Madrid's National Theater for Hollywood in 1986.
"I can't believe I've been away from the theater for so long," Banderas said in an interview. "For years I've been numb to it. The movies are very persuasive, for the money you make and your projection into the world. But the theater is my passion, especially musical theater. I've never been on Broadway before, but I feel like I've come home."
Leveau's faith in Banderas was well placed. He is the Contini of any director's dream, playing the self-indulgent director with such boyish lack of guile that he is completely sympathetic, unlike the demanding, whip-wielding chauvinist that Marcello Mastroianni created for the film "8 1/2." When Banderas' Contini says he feels like an innocent 9-year-old inside (giving the show its title), you believe him although he has just admitted turning 40.
Furthermore, Banderas who has sung in zarzuelas in Spain has a pleasant voice made big enough by amplification to meet the demands of musical theater. This is an unexpected dividend, which added to his charismatic persona and sexual magnetism provides him with all the dimensions of a Big Broadway Star with only Brian Stokes Mitchell in "Man of La Mancha" as a current competitor.
Contini faces his 40th birthday with a bad case of writer's block just when he has contracted to write and direct a new film.
He seeks refuge from the distractions of life at a fashionable Venetian spa, hoping ideas for the film will come to him there, only to be haunted by the memory of himself at nine, played charmingly by William Ullrich, and the women with whom he has had failed romantic relationships, including his aristocratic wife.
The women, 16 in all counting Contini's mother, appear to him in the tiled pool patio of the spa, gathering around a great oval table in plexiglass chairs to hash over his past and demand his present attention. One of them even descends to the stage in a chiffon cocoon so that her arrival will not be overlooked by the impressionable Contini.
He must deal with his importuning producer (Chita Rivera), his suicide-bent mistress (Jane Krakowski), his actress-muse (Laura Benanti), the Gypsy beachcomber who introduced him to sex (Myra Lucretia Taylor), his long-suffering wife (Mary Stuart Masterson), his disapproving mother (Mary Beth Peil), and several others, including a prying women reporter.
All of these actresses turn in remarkably effortless performances with the exception of Rivera, who can't resist stealing the show whenever she gets the chance, mostly in the first act. She is absolutely shameless in upstaging everyone within shouting distance, emoting in a phony Gallic way, dancing up a storm, and showing off her still-shapely legs in a Folies-Bergere routine choreographed by Jonathan Butterell.
That, however, is not the highlight of the show. It comes at the opening of the second act when Banderas and Benanti are joined in a duet rendition of "A Man Like You" and "Unusual Way," songs that have the most emotionally elevating music and lyrics of any of a score of lovely numbers written for the show by Maury Yeston, a composer who was a sentimentalist at heart.
The sources of music inspiration drawn on by the composer, best known for his Tony Award-winning music for Broadway's "Titanic," are wide-ranging. There are touches of the Baroque operatic style, a snippet of a Kyrie eleison from the Catholic mass, wide swaths of pop melody, and an homage to music hall razzle dazzle.
Scott Pask's all white set design, with a spiraling metal staircase to one side that is perfect for dramatic entrances, creates an early 1960s film atmosphere that suits the second act movie-making scenes. As a backdrop, Pask uses a blowup of a Botticelli-like tapestry, lovingly lit by lighting designer Brian McDevitt. Vicki Mortimer's costumes, especially the beaded minidress designed for Krakowski, are period perfect.
And what will Banderas do next, after "Nine"? He says he is scheduled to make a sequel to his 1998 film, "The Mask of Zorro" and another Pedro Almodovar movie, "Tarantula."
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