Review - Applause: Welcome To The Flu Season!

By: Feb. 09, 2008
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In the 1979 revival of Oklahoma!, Christine Ebersole insisted that when it comes to men she "cain't say no," and this weekend she's showing City Center audiences that when it comes to performing, the same words apply. Despite suffering musical theatre's most talked-about flu since Faith Prince played Miss Adelaide in the last revival of Guys and Dolls (Okay, so Miss Adelaide only has a cold, but you get my point.) Ms. Ebersole is nevertheless positively luminous as Margo Channing in the Encores! staged reading of Applause.

Certainly you've heard the story by now. As recapped by Encores! Artistic Director Jack Viertel before Friday evening's performance, Ebersole became horribly stricken on the 7th of the 10 rehearsal days Equity allows for these concert performances. Missing the next two, and without an understudy, she insisted on going on for Wednesday's open dress rehearsal, though the doctor ordered her not only not to kiss her leading man, but not to even touch anyone. Reports on internet chat boards described her gallant effort despite an inability to sing that night, and her improved state for Thursday night's opening. And though you could see and hear the obvious signs of the star's bad health last night - the notes that weren't held, her energy sagging at times, her voice petering out - the craft of a skilled actress and the heart of a passionate performer were out there in as full a force as Ebersole could muster. It wasn't always pretty, but I dare you not tear up with smiles watching her Margo shine with joy as she disco dances with a chorus of adoring males in a West Village gay bar. Or thrill to her quiet elegance as she turns the torchy "Hurry Back" into an art song. Or cheer with admiration as she packs whatever strength she has left into the final moments of the first act's finale, the backhanded anthem, "Welcome To The Theatre."

The musical version of All About Eve isn't a bad show. It's just not an especially good one. But it had the luck to open in a rather unimpressive season for Broadway musicals, winning the Tony over Coco and Purlie. The book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams has enough high moments that, with a great star turn, good supporting players and a stylish production, it can give you a fun night out. Even while ailing, Christine Ebersole provides the great turn but much of the rest of director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall's production isn't quite as healthy.

The tricky thing about star vehicles is that you need other actors around who can stand up to the lead's glitter and make an impression. Michael Park lacks the strength in both vocals and presence that would make him believable as the steadying force in Margo's life as both her director and lover. Erin Davie's Eve Harrington is never convincingly sincere in her act as an innocent girl who just wants to be helpful to Margo, nor a realistic threat as the calculating opportunist who beds her way to stardom. Her climatic number, "One Hallowe'en" is wildly overacted and under-sung.

But there's fine work to be enjoyed in the smaller roles. Mario Cantone is smack on the mark as the droll hairdresser Duane and makes a strong impression in his limited singing and dancing moments. Megan Sikora is a pistol of song and dance spunkiness, leading a knockout dancing ensemble in the title song. (This production eschews the tradition of naming the character after the actress playing it so she goes by the name of Bonnie, after the role's originator, Bonnie Franklin.) Chip Zien plays the loveable mensch of a playwright with his usual good humor and Kate Burton is smart and elegant as the wife who supported him through the lean years.

If the staging and choreography settled on the perfunctory, Rob Berman's 31-piece orchestra sounded just terrific, especially when Philip J. Lang's orchestrations went gloriously mod.

Oh, and by the way, regarding my Tuesday entry, there was no response at all.


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