Applause | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader


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Apple Tree Theatre Company

In Applause, Eve Harrington, the understudy for the famous actress Margo Channing, finally gets a chance to go onstage. She is a sensation, and when she returns to her dressing room, a star herself now, Eve credits her director for her performance.

"You said, 'The only thing that makes an audience uncomfortable is to see an actor presssing--sweating to make good,'" Eve reminds the director. "You said, 'If you feel you're losing them, don't panic. Hold very still inside. Don't go after them; make them come to you.'"

That is precisely the advice that the cast members disregard in the Apple Tree Theatre's production of Applause. Most of them looked as if they'd been goosed by director Peter Amster in a desperate attempt to put some life into the show.

They talk too loudly and move too much while delivering their lines. Choreographer Maria Lampert has them jump on the furniture and throw themselves across the stage when they dance. They sweat like crazy to make good, and yes, it did make the audience uncomfortable.

Applause is Apple Tree's first production in its new theater, located in an attractive new shopping center in Highland Park. Maybe that has something to do with the sense of strain that comes from the performers. Who wouldn't want to christen a new theater with a big hit?

Then again, maybe the director and the choreographer recognized that the musical doesn't have much going for it, and this nervous energy is their way of injecting some excitement.

Applause is based on the Oscar-winning 1950 film All About Eve, a weak backstage tale about an aging actress and the scheming upstart who attempts to dethrone her. Joseph Mankiewicz salvaged the story with his witty screenplay and fine direction (he won Oscars for both), and Bette Davis was nominated for an Oscar for her wonderfully bitchy performance as Margo Channing.

What saved the musical version, which opened in 1970, was Lauren Bacall, whose presence in the lead role was an uncanny intersection of life and art. Like Margo Channing, Bacall was an aging film star; like Margo, Bacall's fame was fading when she accepted--the Broadway role, and the success of the show was anything but assured. But her performance--and the fond memories people brought to the theater with them--was enough to make Applause a hit, and Bacall became a full-fledged celebrity all over again.

In a way, it was a symbiotic relationship--Applause needed Bacall as much as Bacall needed Applause; the Apple Tree production reveals how hackneyed and implausible the story is without that added dimension. Feeling generous on opening night, Margo agrees to meet an adoring fan who has been spotted at every preview performance. The fan, Eve, appears wide-eyed and worshipful before the star. She says she's an amateur actress whose life was shattered by the death of her young husband. She was dazed and depressed for a long time after that, until she saw Margo perform in a play. "It was like suddenly walking into the sunlight again," Eve says. "I came back to life."

Flattered, Margo hires Eve as her secretary, and from her vantage point backstage, Eve memorizes all of Margo's lines. When the understudy is fired, the producer asks Eve to audition for the job, and the young woman demurely agrees. Sure enough, she gives a terrific reading, gets the part, and wows the audience when she finally gets a chance to go on in place of Margo. Only then do we begin to learn the truth about Eve.

The songs, with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams, don't do much to enliven this tired plot--only the title song is memorable--and the tenuous love affair between Margo and her director, Bill Sampson, doesn't provide much suspense. It's actually easy to understand why Amster encouraged frenetic performances from the cast members.

There are islands of calm within the show. Carlton Miller, who plays Eve, is a self-assured pro who knows exactly what she's doing with every gesture, every inflection. Same with Barbara Rosin, a veteran performer who, as Margo, radiates the vivacious charm of a star. Even Scott Schumacher is ultimately effective though his singing is a bit tenuous and his performance seems a bit uncertain as he tries to create a personality for Bill.

But around these islands swirl turbocharged performers who threaten to fly out of control and go sailing into the audience at any minute. They've got it backward--they're supposed to make the audience come to them.


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