Nothing, not even the threat of world war, can discourage Phoenix Theatre's annual tradition of kicking off the season with a big, tacky musical. This year, it's Betty Comden and Adolph Green's perfectly terrible Applause, which won the 1970 Tony Award for Best Musical entirely on the strength of its lead, Lauren Bacall. Without Bacall's star turn as Margo Channing, this tepid translation of Joseph Mankiewicz's All About Eve is little more than a bathetic backstage story strung with humdrum songs.
This tale of a conniving fan named Eve who plots to overtake her idol, Margo, as the queen of Broadway is obliterated here by the tedium of Charles Strouse's and Lee Adams' sleepy score. Among the show's mostly grating tunes is the too-frequently reprised "Backstage Babble," in which the cast blathers nonsense to an undistinguished melody -- a fitting commentary on this production, but still no fun to listen to.
Where Mankiewicz turned Mary Orr's original story into a wickedly entertaining commentary on show business, Comden and Green have inverted it, making a floppy footlight parade out of the rivalry between legend Margo and wanna-be Eve. In this version, nothing much happens after Eve becomes a star -- nothing, that is, except a lot of tuneless numbers that are, in this production, oversold by under-talented players.
Even gifted performers come off badly in this screwy sideshow. I've waited a long time for Maria Amorocho's return to the stage, but her big talents are barely perceptible in a puzzling portrayal of Karen Richards. Karen is a Radcliffe girl, but Amorocho plays her as a loud, blowzy bullhorn whose clownish drunken scene is just plain embarrassing. Mark Stoddard's Bill Sampson is too fey and oafish to woo a third-row chorus girl, let alone a Broadway legend like Margo Channing. As Eve, Katherine Stewart is a captivating stone, utterly unconvincing as a conniving actress (or any kind of actress at all) who's capable of trumping a theater legend.
Not even a theater legend as lifeless as Patti Davis Suarez's Margo, who must have slept her way to the top -- she certainly didn't win any Sarah Siddons awards for the sort of acting and singing she displays here. Suarez trades in Margo's legendary "fire and music" for flashy fit-throwing; hers is strictly a bus-and-truck Margo, a canned ham who would've closed out of town in the most actor-proof show.
The only consistently entertaining performance is by Robert L. Harper, whose funny (and wildly offensive) Duane isn't onstage often enough to carry the show. Would that director/choreographer Michael Barnard had handed Harper a wig and a skirt and let him play Margo.
Instead, Barnard -- who's wise enough to know when he's selling a stink bomb -- trots out every last one of his road company tricks. The big numbers are crammed with random gymnastics, synchronized kick lines, even juggling, and every one of them is played directly to the audience and ends with outstretched arms and big, cheeky smiles. The title song, perhaps the only hummable tune among Strouse's compositions, features a revolting, bare-assed striptease that elevates the show from merely tacky to truly tasteless. Even the timeline is awry: Although Comden and Green set their story in the early 1970s, Barnard and music director Jerry Wayne Harkey have inserted references to tunes from late in that lamentable era ("YMCA" was released in 1978; Van McCoy's "The Hustle" in 1975).
Even the stagehands who stand around watching the story unfold (a nod to Brecht and one of the few interesting bits in Barnard's staging) looked bored on opening night. Applause is a star vehicle without a star bright enough to carry it, a show that roars with the sound of one hand clapping.
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