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Paulanne Simmons

Four Days of Applause

Christine Ebersole as Margo Channing in "Applause." Photo by Joan Marcus.

Directed by Kathleen Marshall
NY City Center Encores!
131 West 55th St. between 6th and 7th avenues
Feb. 7 to 10, 2008
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Feb. 9, 2008

"Applause," the 1970 Tony-winning musical hasn't been seen on Broadway for more than 35 years. Happily for those who remember its fine score and saucy dialogue, as well as those who need to be introduced to the show, "Applause" is part of this season's City Center Encores! series. What's more, the production features the magnificent Christine Ebersole as diva Margo Channing and the effervescent Mario Cantone as her hairdresser, Duane Fox.

Based on the 1950 classic backstage film "All About Eve," "Applause" became the classic backstage musical years before "A Chorus Line" reclaimed the title. A potent argument could be made that "Applause" is the better play.

"Applause" has a book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams. It's filled with show-stopping numbers like "Applause" and "Welcome to the Theater," as well as tender ballads like "Hurry Back." And it's generously sprinkled with wisecracks, such as Margo's remark that if Eve is such a treasure, she should be buried.

The show is about the glamorous Channing, who is undermined by a young girl, Eve Harrington (Erin Davie), who comes backstage one day, wins Channing's heart and tries to win her part. Harrington sleeps and claws her way to the top. She manages to become Channing's understudy and even makes a play for her boyfriend, a director named Bill Sampson (the sexy Michael Park).

Sampson is eight years younger than Channing, which makes her feel especially vulnerable when she sees how attracted Sampson is to the younger woman. And the treachery of the playwright, Buzz Richards (Chip Zien) and his wife Karen (Kate Burton) doesn't help matters any.

Director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall and musical director Rob Berman, have only deviated slightly from the 1970 production. They've updated the "Applause" song and dance pastiche of Broadway musicals to include more recent shows that have been produced since the original staging. This update is entirely welcome and appropriate.

If "Applause" was a great vehicle for Lauren Bacall, earning her the coveted Tony for best actress in a musical, it also gives Christine Ebersole a wonderful opportunity to display her talent. Ebersole can speak like a fish monger and sing like an angel, both of which come in handy in this role.

Cantone seems to be made to play Duane Fox, and his fans won't be disappointed as he flutters on and off the stage, swinging his hips and delivering pitch perfect punch lines.

The Encores! orchestra, in full view of the audience, the lovely and lively, although minimal scenery that is moved seamlessly on and off stage, and the high quality of the ensemble all make this Encores! production another example of what audiences have come to expect from the superlative series – great, big-hearted entertainment that keeps everyone wanting more.

If you missed "Applause," the March show is "Juno." Don't make the same mistake twice.


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