Christine Ebersole, who last year won a Tony Award for her double-header performance in Grey Gardens, launches into one of the bouncier Charles Strouse-Lee Adams songs comprising the score. “I feel groggy and weary / And tragic,” she sings, “Punchy and bleary / And fresh out of magic, / But alive.” Boy, do you believe her.
The grog, the wear, the punch, and the blear come courtesy of the flu, which struck Ebersole last week and as of Thursday night had not yet fully released its grip. So severe was the illness that it forced her to miss several days of rehearsal, and proceed with performances only under strict orders from her doctor.
Watching and hearing her plow through the proto-disco inspirational “But Alive” while conquering a Village gay bar and its worshipful inhabitants, you’d never guess Ebersole was operating at less than full strength. If her typical brushed-golden vocals were slightly tarnished and she appeared more tentative on many sustained notes, she didn’t want at all for the decadent energy that defines her character as Margo Channing, Broadway Star.
Channeling her diminished voice into smoky speech patterns recalling both the role’s originator, Lauren Bacall, and Marilyn Monroe (nicely matched by Ebersole’s own slightly faded sexiness), Ebersole proved nothing less than a vivifying presence even in these most adverse of circumstances. And for the song’s few jaunty minutes, it seemed that this famously flat show would become the fully three-dimensional entertainment Ebersole is apparently convinced she’s starring in.
Alas, not quite. Even with Ebersole’s dynamism, an impressively credentialed cast, and director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall helming it all with a keener-than-usual application of her blaring Broadway flash, the rest of Applause still exhibits few signs of discernible life. Despite being based on the classic-of-classic backstage film All About Eve and the original story by Mary Orr, this is one of those rare shows that has a pulse but no sign of any blood.
Eve is as charming as she is young and pretty, making it easy for her to play on Margo’s insecurities and insinuate herself into hand-me-down stardom. All she needs to do is roll over everyone involved in Margo’s current stage triumph: the producer (Tom Hewitt), the playwright (Chip Zien) and his wife (Kate Burton), and finally the audience. But one thing at a time.
The film, however, spared neither the claws nor the acid, presenting an unforgiving portrait of Eve and Margo as seen through both sides of the same looking glass and resulting in a barrage of bitchy badinage that became the stuff of Hollywood legend. In Applause, this is softened by a songstack that presents both women in uncharacteristically sympathetic terms: Margo as dependent as a schoolgirl on riding love’s roller coaster, and Eve as an unstable interloper barely held together by thrill of the masquerade.
Problems are also exacerbated by too many ensemble set pieces, which are led by a show gypsy (Megan Sikora) who charts Eve’s rise and explains the psychology of the show person (“You’ve had a taste of / The sound that says love / Applause”). While these numbers, the title song (which includes a wildly out of place, yet oddly entertaining, tribute to Encores! past) and “She’s No Longer a Gypsy,” helping the show temporarily freebase fun, they give the insider’s Broadway perspective on events the story simple doesn’t require.
What Applause needs are songs that better plumb the depths of the yearnings that drive all these people to their bad behavior. It doesn’t have them. The closest is Margo’s first-act closer, “Welcome to the Theatre,” an ironic anthem about the art that fulfills and destroys the soul in equal measure. Just about everything else, especially in the arid second act, seems to be filling time until the next backstabbing plot twist.
Marshall and her company make all this nothing pleasurable enough to watch, and the show - despite its most valiant attempts - is never boring. It even allows for some respectively restrained comedy from Mario Cantone has Margo’s flamboyant hairdresser, and elegant bit-part portrayals from everyone else, especially Park and Davie, who have enough chemistry with Ebersole to charge their zero-watt scenes to nearly perceptible brightness.
At least Ebersole burns brightly throughout, ragged voice or no, and is a sufficiently glimmering excuse for most of this. She’s a testament to the can-do spirit that’s too often missing in today’s absence-heavy Broadway, and she beautifully demonstrates how to turn a liability into an asset. One can’t have too much of that in Applause, a show too often demonstrates how to turn assets into liabilities.