Nine and Tuppence: Big Money Movie Musicals

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

What's more difficult: making a movie out of a well-known Broadway musical or making a Broadway musical out of a well-known movie?

nine3.jpgAudiences here in Los Angeles have a great chance to contemplate this question over the next few weeks. Tomorrow the film version of the musical Nine hits movie theaters. A riff on Fellini's 8 1/2, Nine is an expensive bore. Just before the screening of the film (directed by Rob Marshall, of Chicago fame) I realized I couldn't recall a single song from Nine, despite the fact that I saw last Broadway revival six years ago. Racking my brain, all I could remember about it was Antonio Banderas trying to sing and Jane Krakowski on a swing.

nine1.jpgWatching Nine on screen made it clear why I couldn't remember the songs — Maury Yeston's music and lyrics aren't just second rate, they're ninth rate. With this lavishly produced film, it's clear Nine is an attempt to duplicate Chicago's success, but it was Kander & Ebb's score, and not stars or a big budget that made the film work. There's nothing in Nine that has the punch of "Razzle Dazzle" or "All That Jazz," the closest thing to a showstopper is a new number called "Take It All," sung by the marvelous Marion Cotillard.

Nine was somewhat diverting on stage. The 2003 Broadway revival had a talented cast, and their energy helped hide the sub-par material. But on film, big movie stars and fast cutting montages only highlight how banal the lyrics and melodies in Nine are. The other problem is that on stage, Nine didn't have to compete with Fellini — the live show was a completely uncinematic experience. But watching Nine on screen with all its homages to 8 1/2 or La Dolce Vita, you are forced to compare two works in the same medium — and while Rob Marshall may be a decent Hollywood director, he's no Fellini.

In the same vein, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe are no Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. Who are Shermans you ask? During the same years that Fellini dazzled the world's eyes with images of chic Italians; the Sherman Brothers tickled the ears of the world with their infectious melodies written for Walt Disney — namely a little ditty called "It's a Small Word, " not to mention songs for the movies The Jungle Book, The Aristocats and Mary Poppins.

A few years ago, Stiles and Drewe were given the unenviable (but profitable) task of writing new songs to accompany the Sherman's Mary Poppins standards in the stage version of the classic movie.

poppins-sugar.jpgStiles and Drewe's new songs aren't bad — and one, titled "Practically Perfect," almost sounds like it was written by the Shermans, especially the lyric "an uncanny nanny is hard to find" — but mostly these new numbers just mark time, as the audience waits for the signature tunes like "A Spoonful of Sugar" and of course "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

The Mary Poppins musical, which is currently enjoying a long (and lucrative) run here in Los Angeles, is very much in the mold of other Disney screen-to-stage spectacles. Matthew Bourne's choreography isn't as dazzling as Julie Taymor's puppets in Lion King, and the book, cobbled together from both the film script and the original P.L. Travers stories is a model of corporate, smoothed-over, P.C. pabulum.

poppins-bert.jpgBut then, no one's going to Mary Poppins for high drama, they're going to hear the songs and see a nanny and her umbrella fly. The show delivers both of these things — and features two fine performances. Ashley Brown, who played the title role on Broadway, doesn't try to reinterpret the part of Mary Poppins. She's content to channel Julie Andrews, which she quite well. Gavin Lee, who originated the role of Bert in London, performs as the chimneysweep here in LA. He might be best thing about this Mary Poppins, because when it comes to Cockney accents, Gavin Lee is no Dick Van Dyke.

Mary Poppins continues at the Ahmanson Theatre through February 7; Nine opens tomorrow in cinemas everywhere.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner and Mary Poppins images: Joan Marcus