But Applause does have one thing to recommend it, and it’s a biggie: one hell of a role for its leading lady. Get the right woman, and you’ve got a hit on your hands. Reprise! has the right woman in Sheryl Lee Ralph. Ralph does justice to the role of Margo Channing, star of stage and screen. She has presence; her Margo seems to be so casual, yet she dominates every scene she’s in. She isn’t bigger than life, but she’s bigger than everyone else in this show, and that’s enough. And Ralph puts that same star quality into her singing - she’s a belter, and she tears through this score with ease. But Ralph’s Margo isn’t all brash and bravura; she’s also insecure. Margo is afraid that her advancing age (40, which is ancient in this business) will put her out of work, and out of the life of her younger boyfriend.
Kevin Earley plays Bill, the boyfriend. When Bill sings a love song to Margo, Earley is his usual wonderful self (this is his sixth show for Reprise!) and leaves audience members flipping through the program at intermission asking “Who is this guy?” Although Earley had no trouble charming the audience, his Bill has absolutely no chemistry with Ralph’s Margo. In some scenes, this fits with the play. But in others, it seemed that no matter how much Earley puts his hands all over Ralph, it plays somewhat passionless.
Then there’s Eve, the sweet, young, seemingly harmless ingenue who attaches herself to Margo and ends up trying to take over Margo’s part (among other things). Jean Louisa Kelly plays Eve straight - there’s no winking at the audience as Eve works her machinations; and she seems so absolutely guileless that, for a moment, you’re willing to believe that Eve is what she appears to be and Margo’s suspicions are just her own insecurities running away with her. Just as Ralph sings Margo with star quality, Kelly sings Eve with innocence. Gone is the clear, confident voice we heard from Kelly in Pippin; Kelly’s Eve sounds like she’s just off the bus from the Midwest. In the second act, when Eve’s deceptions are laid bare, she has one song, “One Hallowe’en,” in which we are given a chance to find out what Eve is really all about. Here, Kelly simply fails to connect. She’s overpowered by the Reprise! orchestra and never really shows Eve to be the spotlight hog we know her to be.
The most surprising misfire in the show, though, is the title song. Performed by a group of young, enthusiastic, theatre “gypsies,” it should be a guaranteed show-stopper. The leading part in the song is sung by Scarlett (the actress formerly known as Caryn E. Kaplan), who is extremely playful in the introduction to the song and makes it seem like the number is going to be reminiscent of when those kids in “Fame” had their famous jam session in the middle of the street. But when Scarlett sings, her singing voice is too smooth and polished, and she completely loses her character. (In the second act number, “She’s No Longer A Gypsy,” Scarlett adds a preening smile to nearly every line.) Mark Esposito’s choreography for “Applause” reaches the necessary frantic fever pitch for a brief moment, but loses it all too quickly by having the ensemble drop into formation. The number isn’t bad by any means, but it ends up being merely cute when it should have been stellar.
Of the remainder of the cast, mention must be made of Veanne Cox, who makes the most of her role as Karen Richards, the wife of the playwright of the play in which Margo is performing. Cox has few lines, but she nails every one for a laugh. As the playwright, Kevin Chamberlin is in his element playing a nebbishy role. James Avery as Howard Benedict, the show’s producer, tripped on several lines, but succeeded in making Benedict an imposing presence when necessary.
David Lee’s direction sometimes leaves a performer standing downstage center and singing a song directly to the audience. This is particularly disconcerting when the character is actually supposed to be talking to someone upstage of them. The oddest decision in the show, however, is a hairdressing one. At a pivotal moment in the show, Bill sees Eve from behind and mistakes her for Margo. Yet, in this scene, Eve is sporting a brand new haircut, which is completely different from any of the wigs we’ve seen Margo wear to this point in the show. Admittedly, mistaking Jean Louisa Kelly for Sheryl Lee Ralph isn’t the easiest thing to do, but Reprise! seemed to go out of its way to make this mistake wholly unbelievable.
Of course, very little of this actually matters. What matters is that Sheryl Lee Ralph is a wicked and wonderful Margo Channing.
Applause runs at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse through May 22, 2005. For more information, visit www.reprise.org.
Reprise! Broadway’s Best -- Marcia Seligson, Producing Artistic Director; Jim Gardia, Managing Director -- presents Applause. Book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green; Music by Charles Strouse; Lyrics by Lee Adams (based on the film All About Eve and the original story by Mary Orr). Scenic Design Evan A. Bartoletti; Costume Design Randy Gardell; Lighting Design Tom Ruzika; Sound Design Philip G. Allen; Orchestrations Philip J. Lang; Vocal Arrangements Donald Pippin; Dance & Incidental Music Arranged by Mel Marvin; Associate Music Director Lisa LeMay; Music Coordinator Joe Soldo; Technical Director Peter Falco; Casting Director Bruce H. Newberg, C.S.A.; Production Stage Manager David Lober; Press Representative David Elzer/Demand PR; Company Manager Danny Feldman; General Manager Kelly Estrella. Produced by Marcia Seligson; Music Direction by Gerald Sternbach; Choreographed by Mark Esposito; Directed by David Lee.
Photo by Michael Lamont