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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

MMT's brave Applause earns applause

Some musicals demand glitzy, showbiz values and little Minneapolis Musical Theater (MMT) rises to the occasion in a simple but glamorous production of Charles Strouse, Lee Adams, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's Applause, a musical adaptation of the film, All About Eve. The costumes are gorgeous, the dancing energetic, the orchestra strong and the voices variable.

MMT cleverly arranged to open this production on the weekend of the Tony Awards. Applause not only won four Tonys in 1970, but the musical opens on a scene from a Tony Award night.

Sophisticated Broadway star Margo Channing announces young Eve Harrington for the best actress award. While Eve is thanking all the right people, the lights dim to Margo's venomous inner thoughts about Eve. The rest of the musical recounts how, in a backstage tale of deception, treachery and ego, her aversion came about.

Margo is a larger-than-life celebrity, a witty and dynamic woman who is packed with talent and faults in equal measure; she's insecure about her age, her lover and her career. On opening night of a new smash hit, a seemingly ingenuous young woman with a bad luck story who admires Margo, ingratiates herself into the star's private life. Eve makes herself indispensable, then systematically works to usurp Margo's career, her lover and her life.

The stylish book by Comden and Green has fun as it breaks the fourth wall, when Margo tells the orchestra to shut up, but it also reflects 1970s attitudes towards being Jewish and towards domesticity for woman.

Under Steven Meerdink's direction, the two female leads are strong. Slim and attractive Karen Weber projects Margo's oversize personality and range of emotions. Weber sings and dances with a gleam in her eyes that speaks of joy in performance. She's playful with boyfriend Bill, generous to Eve, and she billows anger like a flame thrower when Margo is drunk and jealous. Weber sings in a full voice and delivers the big notes. Christine Nelson sings the ambitious ingénue, Eve, in a clear soprano. Nelson acts well, effectively transforming from a subservient ingénue to a ruthless, bed-hopping schemer, as her career advances.

Lively Windy Bowlsby as Bonnie, Margo's understudy, introduces the musical's big number, "Applause," and versatile Karen Wiese-Thompson is in good voice as the wife of playwright Buzz.

Even though the Hennepin Stages space is small, voices are miked over Kevin Hansen's strong seven-piece orchestra, off-stage right, which has a fuller sound than its numbers suggest. The ear-piece mikes are obvious and, apart from Weber and Nelson and maybe, Bowlsby and Wiese-Thompson, most of the other voices require miking.

As Margo's attractive director boyfriend, Bill Sampson, Gary Keast looks the romantic part and sings reasonably well but cannot carry higher notes. Marlin Rothe as producer Howard is no stronger, and Phil Losacker's Buzz struggles with a tune.

Aaron Gabriel has a delicious role as Margo's hairdresser and general minder. Gabriel, in wig and outrageously happy costumes, camps it up as Duane. The ensemble, many of them young performers, sing and dance well.

Lighting by Jay Schueller is showbiz-bright and glitzy, although there was a dodgy second during a duet on opening night when the stage went dark. Schueller also designed the period, multi-purpose set. Sharon Bach's choreography has the large gestures of a '70s musical, and the costumes from Theatrical Costumes Company are Broadway gorgeous.

MMT specializes in bringing not-often-seen musical theater that is new to the Twin Cities area to the stage. This high-energy, visually appealing production of Applause, even with a few uncertain voices, showcases Minneapolis Musical Theater's growing confidence as a company.

Applause June 3 - June 26, 2005. Fridays - Sundays 7:30 p.m. and Monday 20, 7:30 p.m. $ 24.00. Minneapolis Musical Theater, Hennepin Stages, 824, Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Call 612-673-0404, group sales 612-673-5656. www.aboutmmt.com


- Elizabeth Weir



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