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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at City Center,New York

By Mervyn Rothstein

  Christine Ebersole & Michael Park/PH: Joan Marcus

For its first musical of the season, the City Center Encores! series brought back Applause. Unfortunately, there wasn't much to applaud.

The idea, it seems, was to provide a star vehicle for the phenomenally talented Christine Ebersole, a two-time Tony Award winner as best actress in a musical ( 42nd Street, Grey Gardens). But even disregarding the flu that reportedly limited her voice severely for the first two nights, and made her save herself for the show's prime moments at the Saturday matinee, Ebersole was not a natural fit as Margo Channing, the aging Broadway star toppled by Eve Harrington, the seemingly sweet yet secretly scheming ingenue in All About Eve, the Oscar-winning 1950 movie on which Applause is based.

Stage aficionados who date back to 1970 remember that the musical's original prime reason for existence was as a star vehicle-for Lauren Bacall, the aging, raspy voiced and diamond- hard actress who seemed perfectly cast as Channing, portrayed by the iconic Bette Davis in the movie.

Those aficionados also probably remember that except for Bacall, the musical was less than distinctive. It had mostly undistinguished music by the otherwise accomplished team of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams ( Bye Bye Birdie) and a Jell-O- like book, written, surprisingly, by the legendary Broadway veterans Betty Comden and Adolph Green- a book that had little of the bite or wit of the movie, that was a pale, creaky reflection of the cinema's sparkling gem.

To quote from the show, lousy book-lousy score. That quote continues, Naturally everyone is blaming the costumes. Well, at City Center, it certainly wasn't the costumes.

Bacall, you may recall, won the Tony Award as best actress in a musical. And yes, the show won the Tony as best musical and ran for 896 performances. But 1970 was not the Broadway musical's most stirring season. ( There were in fact only two other nominees: Coco, a mediocrity that owed its existence to the presence of the great Katharine Hepburn as Coco Chanel and Purlie, a no more than average adaptation of the play Purlie Victorious.)

Even if it were eligible, the City Center Applause would not win a Tony. Age has only magnified the musical's faults. Ebersole does not have the bitchiness of a Bacall, or a Davis. In fact, until she first senses that Harrington is two-faced, and Channing, aided by alcohol, finally shows her true nasty side, Ebersole seems all sweetness and light- she just doesn't convey even a hint that viciousness might be her character's quintessence.

Erin Davie, a gifted young actress ( she played the young Edith Bouvier Beale opposite Ebersole in Grey Gardens) is effectively both sweet and sour, innocent and calculating as Harrington ( Anne Baxter in the movie). She also has a lovely voice. But her Iago instinct seems blurred at first.

Let's say it's more the book's problem than the performers, all highly capable and experienced actors mostly forced to play stick figures because of the limits of the lines they've been given. Primary among the supporting cast is the formidable Kate Burton, offered little to do as Karen Richards, the playwright's conniving wife, used by Harrington as a tool of betrayal herself.

The score is instantly forgettable, with but two exceptions: the cliched but tuneful Applause -yes, we know there's no business like show business- and the one powerful emotional number, Welcome to the Theater. That anthem of hope and schadenfreude, sung with bitter nuance by a suddenly commanding Ebersole, provides the evening's only powerful moments-yes, the theater is magic and fun, but if you want<


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