Air traffic control tower: Cancel the alert. We can confirm now that the blip on your screen is no ordinary UFO. What you're locking on are the aerial gyrations of an eminently identifiable FO, hovering over the stage of the Eugene O'Neill Theatre like a newly minted Wallenda.
The perpetrator of the gravity-defying act is one Jane Krakowski, better known as the predatory Elaine on television's defunct "Ally McBeal." Ravishingly svelte in a sheer, beaded gown the color of Dom Perignon, Krakowski makes an entrance to drop the jaw in the Roundabout Theatre Company's eye-thrilling, if dramatically uneven, revival of "Nine."
The kittenish actress descends from the heavens, clinging Cirque du Soleil-style to a few yards of stretchable fabric, to sing the playful "A Call From the Vatican," a number that gives new meaning to the concept of phone sex. She's one of the 16 women who becomingly dress up this fashion plate's fantasy of a production, the first Broadway mounting of the show since the Tony-winning 1982 original.
Based on the autobiographical Fellini classic "8 1/2," "Nine," which opened last night, is a looker from start to finish. Set designer Scott Pask has created an environment for a somewhat abstracted musical that could have been dreamed up on the drafting table of a hip Roman architecture firm: A wall of translucent glass panels that comes apart to reveal a 40-foot Botticelli, rendered in tiles. The embrace of all hot things Latin extends not only to a wardrobe by Victoria Mortimer that seems lifted from a Milanese house of couture, but also to the evening's star. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Signore Antonio Banderas.
This lavish new "Nine" -- which also features that septuagenarian wonder of nature Chita Rivera -- has been assembled by David Leveaux, a British director with a sophisticated eye for framing characters onstage; he exhibited a similar dexterity with composition a few years back in his striking production of Sophocles' "Electra," with Zoe Wanamaker.
The looks department is indeed where "Nine" struts its best stuff. Though blessed with Maury Yeston's intensely emotional score, and several breath-catching moments -- the wait for Laura Benanti's atmospheric Act 2 number, "A Man Like You," is more than worth it -- the musical's narrative wanders off like a child you can't quite keep track of. Attempting in some small measure to mirror the stream-of-consciousness construction of the movie, the show has only the slightest of through-stories, involving the efforts of its anxiety-ridden hero, a film director by the name of Guido Contini, to get his new movie made.
Expending so much energy as it rummages in the recesses of Guido's id and superego, "Nine" need not follow all of the guideposts of conventional storytelling. But it does have to find a coherent vocabulary for the contemplative Guido's memories, worries, attractions and fixations. And often, Leveaux's "Nine" is a lot more concerned with conjuring images than with making sense of them: A sequence of songs in Act 2, called "The Grand Canal," is staged, to no apparent end, in a pool of ankle-deep water, in which Guido and some of the women gallivant for a while. It's at such moments that the production feels like a painting that grows fuzzier the longer you gaze at it.
The concept, though, is as intriguing now as it was 21 years ago: a psycho-musical about one man and the women who command, control and confound him. In the original Broadway version, directed by Tommy Tune, the women were posed on pedestals, displayed as the furnishings of Guido's psyche. In Leveaux's production, they're more free-floating, drifting onto and off the stage in small groups and, most memorably, arriving in the opening scene by parading down a colossal circular staircase. It's a veritable vertical runway show. Versace's people, are you taking notes?
Guido's women, who include his wife (Mary Stuart Masterson), his mistress (Krakowski), his actress-muse (Benanti), his producer (Rivera) and his mother (Mary Beth Peil), sing about his reckless inconstancy, a proclivity that Guido does not take issue with. (You can imagine how he would benefit from a weekly session with another strong Italian woman, Dr. Melfi of "The Sopranos.") Guido's failure to master his desires has artistic consequences; his lack of success in settling romantic accounts is linked to his inability to make his film. He's a director without direction.
Banderas, making his Broadway debut, sings with a deep, booming vibrato and moves with a crisp vulpine grace. You can tell he's a movie actor; there's a minimalist quality to his performance. Still, it's an appealing star turn, a portrait of the artist as eternal boy. His Guido sends out take-care-of-me vibes, fatally attractive to those with strong maternal drives. This works for Guido, an ambivalent man-child who craves the attention of women even as he runs away from it.
The women in Guido's life look great, and several have standout moments, in particular the bravura Krakowski, who's never been employed to more dazzling effect: It's the kind of performance for which award acceptance speeches are made. Benanti, so winning as a stressed Cinderella in last season's "Into the Woods," continues to evince leading-lady poise, and Masterson shows off an accomplished voice, even if her put-upon wife does not register all that potently. Rivera is not ideally cast as a French film producer, but her gale-force stage presence eventually blows away all doubt, especially in her showcasing number, "Folies Bergeres." The woman is, in every sense, still kicking.
In fits and starts, "Nine" is, too. Leveaux does not solve any of the show's structural defects, but with a lot of extravagant doodads, he makes it a spectacle worth taking in.
Nine, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, book by Arthur Kopit, adapted from the Italian by Mario Fratti. Directed by David Leveaux. Lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Jon Weston; music coordinator, John Miller. With Myra Lucretia Taylor, Saundra Santiago, Nell Campbell, Deirdre Goodwin. Approximately 2 1/2 hours. At Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com