Monday, February 11, 2008

Fasten Your Seatbelts

"Applause" presented by Encores! at City Center, February 10, 2008

The new Encores! season has started with a relative bang. The 1970 "Applause" with book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams, was quite the star vehicle for Lauren Bacall, winning four Tonys and three Drama Desk awards. Based on the classic Bette Davis film "All About Eve" from 1951 (And you thought film to stage was a new concept?), it "updates" the story to 1970 in the wake of Vietnam, rather than the aftermath of WWII. If you really need a plot summary, you should be ashamed, but you can click here for the original movie plot - I think the adaptation to the stage did little more than change the period.

I first saw a production of "Applause" in the early 1990s. The score struck me as dated and the book, a bit creaky. Both observations still hold, despite the excellent orchestra under the skillful direction of Rob Berman.

Chip Zien and Kate Burton in the supporting roles of Buzz and Karen Richards, Margo's playwrights, have a grand time with their crossover numbers and supporting player shtick. I haven't heard Ms. Burton sing before and she does a nice job. Mr. Zien is in his usual fine form.

As Bill Sampson, Michael Park takes a well-deserved break from television's As the World Turns' Jack Snyder. He is well-cast as the handsome younger director in love with the slightly older Margo. His part is a bit thin (it's really not one of Comden and Green's better books), but he sings nicely and it's easy to understand why Eve is so attracted to him.

Tom Hewitt is nicely nasty as Howard Benedict, the Broadway producer who turns the tables on Eve after she tries to step over him on her way up. Mario Cantone is remarkably subdued as Duane Fox, Margo's hairdresser, though he does take his moment when it's appropriately given to him with a nod to Ms. Davis and Katherine Hepburn tossed in for fun.

Director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall has reunited the mother/daughter pairing of Christine Ebersole and Erin Davie in the respective roles of Margo Channing and Eve Harrington. It's actually quite an effective touch of casting.

Ms. Davie's Eve truly captures the the vulnerable and mousy waif who burrows her way into Margo's life. Her transformation into starlet is skillful, sleeping her way to the top, regardless of the consequences. When what "goes around, comes around" it's a well-deserved and satisfying end.

It's Ms. Ebersole who carries the bulk of the show. As I mentioned earlier, I had seen a production of the show many years ago. At the time, it was easy to see Ms. Bacall in the role, but still with remnants of Ms. Davis lingering. Ms. Ebersole totally makes the role her own in no uncertain terms. There are no references to either of her predecessors' Margos - quite a feat.

Ms. Marshall has also done an excellent job capturing the period in her choreography with a strong feel of early Michael Bennett. I do think more time was spent on the songs than the scenes. This was the first time I was really distracted by the actors carrying their scripts. I especially liked the new staging and arrangement of the title song extended into a tribute medley of other Encores! productions including The Apple Tree, Babes in Arms, Boys From Syracuse, Bye Bye Birdie, Call Me Madam, Can-Can, Carnival, Chicago, Follies, Hair, Kismet, The New Moon, Of Thee I Sing, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Promises, Promises, St. Louis Woman, Stairway to Paradise, Strike Up the Band and Wonderful Town. (I think I identified all but three of these from the musical references.)

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