Applause Does Not Get My Applause
The Willows Theatre, one of the best and fastest raising theater companies in the Bay area, is presenting the rarely performed 1970 Tony Award Winning musical Applause. This company has produced excellent revivals, such as Rags, The Rothchilds, Annie 2 and Brimstone. The latter was nominated for Bay Area Theatre Critics Awards in nine categories and it won every one of them, including best musical. I had looked forward to seeing what this talented company would do with the Strouse-Adams musical.
I had seen the Lauren Bacall and Len Cariou production at the New York Palace two days after it opened on March 17, 1970. I had also worked with Ms. Bacall on several films at Warners and I was happy to see that she was finally appearing on the New York stage singing and dancing. After I saw the show, I fell in love with the whole production, the Charles Strouse music and the Lee Adams lyrics. It was a show at which you left happy, with melodies running through your head. It had a long run on Broadway and a successful road trip. After that the production disappeared and to my knowledge this is one of the first revivals in recent memory.
I can now see why it has not been revived. It is a dated musical and it needs a powerhouse performer like Bacall in the lead. It needs top notch dancing, singing and timely direction. In this production Livia Genise, who plays Margo Channing, sings "But Alive" in the gay bar scene in the first act. She sings "I'm alive, I'm alive"; I can only say I wish the production were the same.
Applause is the musical version of the Fox hit movie All About Eve. It's a Broadway backstage drama filled with back stabbing and betrayals. Eve gives a master class in the art of personal achievement in the theater through treachery. The original musical was a captivating, nasty, back biting and thoroughly entertaining piece of theater. I had only wished that the Willows company could have done the musical justice. Maybe I am being too critical since this is a regional production and not a full scale Broadway show, but I did have high hopes that this company could pull it off. They did not.
First let me say that I have seen some bad chorus lines in my life. However, this one takes the cake. It the worst choreography and so called dancing I have seen in a long time. I can't understand this, since the director could have had the pick of good dancers here in the Bay Area. They must have had about one week rehearsal for these little talented dancers. There were two young Asian boys who knew what they were doing. They entered into the spirit of the musical and they were very good. Frankly I think the Willows should stay with all singing musicals and with little dancing.
Livia Genise, as I said before, plays Margo. She is a residence artist and a director for the Willows Theatre Conservatory for the Performing Arts. I believe this is the reason she got the role of the aging actress Margo Channing. She has a good singing voice, but she constantly overacted her role. Only in the second act when she was singing When You Got Good Friends was she natural. Her bitchiness did not come through, even in the big number Fasten Your Seat Belts. There were several others in the cast, including Mary Gibboney who played Karen, who could have done a better job.
Another serious miscast was Margo's boy friend Bill Sampson. The actor John P. Minagro recently completed a five year run with San Francisco's Phantom as Don Attilio. Mr. Minagro, even with his powerful voice, was completely out of place in this production. He looked more like a Mafia chief than a Hollywood director.
The best of the group was Beth Wilmurt, one of our most popular Bay Area singers. She played the gypsy Bonnie and when she sang two of the best songs "Applause" and "She's No Longer a Gypsy" she came over like gang busters.
Anna Hess played the young actress clawing her way to the top. She got into the character Eve and she nailed the part down pat. She had a good voice also.
The sets and costumes were pure 70s. The gay bar scene looked like something I remember during my "fun" years of the 70s. Pastel shirts and bell bottom trousers. They all looked like Sonny and Cher up there on the stage. As V.J. asked me in Las Vegas, why are they reviving this dated musical? Well, John, I agree with you now, "Why"??? Well anyway I still have great memories of Ms. Bacall doing Margo in New York. For all you theatre buffs, the New York cast boasted, besides Ms. Bacall and Mr. Cariou, Bonnie Franklin as Eve and Lee Roy Reams as Margo's hairdresser and best friend. Applause runs until May 16. Funny Girl is their next production and it opens on June 14. I can only hope the company does a better job on the Julie Styne-Bob Merrill musical.
- Richard Connema