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Borne aloft by her role

Special to The Times

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.”

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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?

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“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.

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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.

Tommy Tune knows as well as anyone the childlike appeal of Krakowski’s grown-up persona. “I actually auditioned Jane for the original production of ‘Nine,’ ” he recalls. “She was just a little girl at the time. Though I didn’t have a part for her, she fascinated me.

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“Years later I cast her in the Joan Crawford role in ‘Grand Hotel.’ I think it’s amazing the way Jane reinvents the character of Carla by using those endearing qualities of herself. If you ask me, she’s a shoo-in for the Tony.”

Leveaux says the actress’ innocence made her “the irresistible choice for the role. We were conscious of the headline ‘mistress’ that hangs over her character. But I see Carla as more a Marilyn Monroe figure than a sexual predator. Jane made me see that you could express ‘A Call to the Vatican’ as an intrinsically lonely song. The girl is on her own, and her eroticism is inconsolable.”

According to Charles Isherwood of Variety, Krakowski’s poignant stage presence “neatly erases the cartoonish contours of her role.” For Ben Brantley of the New York Times, the actress “registers, even more than Mr. Banderas, as the production’s emotional focal point.” Describing her as “a sexed-up version of the waif model Penelope Tree,” Brantley says that Krakowski “manages to commandeer a part that would have seemed to belong forever to Anita Morris, who created it.”

“When I got the job I was filled with trepidation because I knew that the shoes had been filled to a T the first time around,” Krakowski admits. “But in the world of revivals, we’re all going to have to take on parts that other people have made very famous. I was tantalized by the challenge. And I knew from the first thing David Leveaux described that his production was going to be completely different from the original, and that gave me a certain freedom and leeway.”

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Leveaux admits that his idea of having Carla fly came largely in reaction to the iconic memory of Morris gyrating on the white box of Tune’s set. “You don’t banish a ghost like that,” he says. “Nor can you improve on it. What you do instead is come up with an image that is utterly self-sufficient and coherent. It took us right up to the time of previews to realize this, and we had to rely heavily on Jane’s bravura.”

Kopit, who wrote the book, which received one of the original production’s 12 Tony nominations, says that Krakowski has redefined Carla’s emotional journey. “Anita was a force of nature, like the eighth wonder of the world. Jane you take into your heart. She’s sweet, sexy and someone who believes that Guido is going to marry her. In many ways her challenge was even greater than Antonio’s because Anita put such an indelible stamp on the role. How can you take on the role of Carla after Anita? Jane did it by being truthful.”

Much of the credit, according to Krakowski, goes to the way Leveaux directed “Nine” not as a series of razzle-dazzle numbers, but as a play with music. “The songs were directed as though they were monologues,” she says. “David found a way for us to trace the journey from ‘A Call From the Vatican’ in the first act to ‘Simple’ in the second.” A movement, in other words, from sensual innocence to maturity gained through loss.

“Carla comes to Venice one person and leaves an entirely different one. Yes, she’s a mistress, but she’s a full person underneath,” Krakowski explains. “A lot of the parts I play could be caricatures. Take Elaine, for instance. She’s a very, how shall I say, overt woman. But I have no interest in playing characters stereotypically because not only does it shortchange them, it takes away from the fun of figuring out why they act the way they do.

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“In musical theater, there’s usually the sexy girl who comes and does the sexy number,” she says. “I’ve liked playing those parts, but it’s very rare that that part gets to show the other side of the story. She will probably never love again with the complete innocence she had with Guido. I think anyone of a certain age who has fallen in love and lost that love can understand that.”

Since “Ally” ended, Krakowski has been keeping a full-tilt schedule. She’s just completed an independent film, has become a regular guest star on the WB series “Everwood” and has recorded a single for the adult contemporary chart.

Although she says that the stage is her first love and that she hopes one day to do a play in London’s West End, she also wouldn’t mind being on another series, and her dream is to land a sitcom. Still, returning to Broadway, where she first made a big splash in “Grand Hotel,” feels like a kind of homecoming.

“What I so enjoyed the most about coming back to the theater is the precious, almost wonderfully lavish time you have to rehearse, which you don’t get in movies or TV. If I came up with this performance on my own, it would not be the one you see onstage. You get engulfed in the world of working with Antonio, David and 16 larger-than-life women.”

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Seventeen, if you count Melanie Griffith, who, hanging out backstage with hubby Banderas, was eventually adopted as an unofficial cast member. The show’s sweet camaraderie sounds almost too good to be true, although Krakowski insists there really wasn’t much of a diva factor.

“It could have been hell,” she admits. “On ‘Ally’ there were a lot of women, and I thought, I have to get on a show where it’s, like, me and a bunch of men. I need to do a baseball play or something. But it wasn’t that way at all. Maybe it’s the kind of people that David cast. Antonio, who’s probably the most gracious successful person I’ve ever met, set the tone at the helm. And Chita tells the best stories in rehearsals.”

She adds, in trouper fashion: “Remember, at 8 o’clock we all have to go out there together. We’re all flying out there without a net.” Some more than others.


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