There is something altogether fitting that one of the most famous of all backstage musicals,
Applause, has arrived at City Center for a four-day run with a backstage story of its own. As Encores! producer Jack Viertel explained to the opening night audience, star Christine Ebersole has been suffering with the flu for days and missing the past few rehearsals, but insisted on going on with the show despite “not being at full speed.” (Plus, there are no actual understudies).
Ironically, this unfortunate situation managed to prove two truths. First, Ebersole at any speed — and I would guess she was going 45 mph — is a marvel, and her firecracker performance as the great stage diva Margo Channing is reason enough to pay this rare revival of the 1970 tuner a visit. Second, it’s obvious that Ebersole at any speed — or any other star — would not be enough to warrant a full-scale revival of this decidedly mediocre show.
Granted, a more inventive director than Kathleen Marshall — who provides some energetic choreography and a reasonably polished gloss — might be able to make a little more out of the raw material. But let’s face the facts: four of the theater’s great talents, the librettists Betty Comden and Adolph Green and the consistently inconsistent songwriting team of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, managed to do little but create a pale imitation of the legendary movie All About Eve. The characterizations here are mostly two-dimensional, the tunes are mostly forgettable (and in the case of “Fasten Your Seat Belts,” slightly bizarre), and the plotting mostly rudimentary.
Still, it’s a nifty star vehicle — it won Lauren Bacall her first Tony Award — and Ebersole was alternately sympathetic, fierce, maddening, madly attractive, and thoroughly charismatic as Margo. If her voice was at times less than optimal, she nevertheless did full justice to her act-one closer “Welcome to the Theatre,” and was remarkably moving on “Hurry Back.”
Of course, for Applause to work at all, Margo needs to meet her match in Eve Harrington, the seemingly super-sweet fan who eventually takes over Margo’s life, friends, and career. But Erin Davie — who played Ebersole’s daughter in Grey Gardens — made this a lopsided battle, being not sweet enough at the beginning nor sour enough at the end, and primarily bland in the middle. Her rendition of Eve’s big second-act number “One Hallowe’en” (in which we are, rather oddly, supposed to understand or even forgive Eve’s horrid behavior because her dad called her a whore at age 9) failed to register much emotional power, and Davie’s singing was a bit flat as well.
Marshall fared somewhat better in choosing the rest of the cast, notably a very funny Mario Cantone as Duane, Margo’s hairdresser and confidant; a properly hard-edged Tom Hewitt as producer Howard Benedict, and a zesty Megan Sikora as head gypsy Bonnie, who leads the famed title number (here, strangely interpolated with snippets of songs, many from shows after 1970). Michael Park was a solid, handsome Bill Sampson, Margo’s director and lover. Chip Zien and Kate Burton enlivened the proceedings as best friends Buzz and Karen Richards, even if Burton — who deserves an Encores! show of her own — ultimately seems way too smart for the role of a naive housewife.
You may not clap that loudly through much of Applause, but you’ll want to rest your hands for Ebersole’s final bow anyway.