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Borne aloft by her role

Jane Krakowski was eager to try 'Nine's' acrobatics using just a bedsheet. Taking on an iconic part was harder.

May 09, 2003|Charles McNulty | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — When Jane Krakowski decided to drop in on Broadway after a seven-year absence, no one expected anything this death-defying.

In the current Broadway revival of Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston's 1982 Tony Award-winning musical "Nine," Krakowski has a highflying (in every sense of the phrase) number that stands as one of the sultriest showstoppers in recent memory.

Fans of "Ally McBeal" have known for some time just how well Krakowski can sing. But who would have guessed that the slyly comedic actress who panted and purred as the show's randy secretary, Elaine Vassal, is also a daredevil acrobat?

Nothing in Krakowski's background prepared her for this. Not all the musicals she saw as a kid in New Jersey. Not the Tony nomination she earned in 1990 for her performance in Tommy Tune's "Grand Hotel." Not her work with Sarah Jessica Parker in the 1996 Broadway semi-flop "Once Upon a Mattress." Not even her turn as Betty Rubble in the movie "The Flintstones: Viva Rock Vegas."

Wrapped in a towel, the lithe beauty flies in on a bedsheet to perform all sorts of naughty tricks with her big toe on "Nine's" megastar, Antonio Banderas. Near the end of her siren song, "A Call From the Vatican," the miraculous linen hoists her up -- legs first, head dangling -- to the collective gasp of the bewitched and bug-eyed audience.

"Basically, we wanted to do something without a harness," Krakowski explains, taking off her sweater to reveal a black Danskin top that has all the waiters at Cafe Edison, lovingly referred to as the Polish Tearoom, even more focused on their current favorite regular. Although, like her "McBeal" character Elaine, she clearly likes the ogling attention here (she naturally gravitated to a table by the window), she claims her ties to the diner have nothing to do with her own Polish heritage. "This is just a legendary theater hangout. I used to come here when I was in other Broadway shows," she says. "I like it because it's no fuss, no glamour, and they make the best soup in town."

OK, back to the harness. "It's just very unsexy," she says emphatically. "You'd see the strings and I'd look like a puppet. We wanted it to be a sensual, fantasy woman image. My mouth just dropped to the floor when I saw the bedsheet. I was totally game to do it."

Granted the bedsheet adds to the steamy effect, but is it safe?

"It's special circus material that wraps around my waist," she explains in the straightforward manner you'd expect from a musical theater pro who has never regretted keeping her defiantly crunchy name. "There's a knot holding me tight, which relies on my gravity. I could possibly fall out, though I don't feel like I can when I'm up there. I had to beg the director to get whatever approval he needed."

Apparently it was a mutual love fest between Krakowski and her director, a Brit with rock-star good looks and the suavest of accents. "We renamed the production 'The Seduction of David Leveaux,' " she confessed. "Even if you don't understand what the heck he's talking about, you're just, like, I'll do anything you say."

Krakowski was especially delighted by the fact that Leveaux's idea to have her character, Carla, levitate came from a scene in Federico Fellini's movie "8 1/2," from which "Nine" is adapted. In that movie, a woman swings (though far less perilously) on a hanging sheet. "There were a lot of '8 1/2' photo books floating around rehearsal," she says. "I love that what we finally created is not an imposed trick but something from the original source material."

Like the film, the musical revolves around the character of Guido Contini -- an Italian auteur not unlike Fellini -- who's played with sensitive European panache by Banderas, in his Broadway debut. Set in a Venetian spa, the surreal saga revolves around Guido's struggle to come up with an idea for his next project while being hounded by memories of his female conquests, which keep luring him away from his marital and artistic obligations.

Chief among these temptations is Krakowski's Carla, the seductive mistress who holes up in a nearby hotel room waiting for another dose of adulterous love. The role, which won the late Anita Morris raves in Tune's highly touted original production, takes on new life in Leveaux's staging.

The revival is also an homage to female style in the age of Twiggy. The cast, amorously pivoting on Banderas, features 16 dazzling women in modish 1960s garb. Among them are Mary Stuart Masterson as Guido's long-suffering yet dignified wife; Laura Benanti as his inspiring lead actress, Claudia; and veteran Chita Rivera as his demanding French producer, who can still do her old Folies Bergere number to perfection.

Krakowski, whose flesh-colored beaded mini sets her winsomely apart from the diva pack, lends Carla a vulnerable erotic frisson. She's as much a harlot as a naive young woman, a wistful femme fatale whose biggest victim is herself.

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