ACTORS ARE A fragile, bizarre breed. Their eccentricities and insecurities are probably linked to the nature of their livelihood. They grope for recognition and an intangible goal called "the top" only to defend the niche from eager young talents. To attempt the climb one must be hooked--on laughter, on audiences, on applause.
The is the theme of the play Applause, a study of theater people in the context of musical comedy. It demands a resourceful cast, for the book by itself renders a potentially compelling drama almost trivial. Scenes seem disjointed and sometimes limp; and the pithy remarks that could add some spunk, are scarce. Moreover, characterizations range only from shallow to hollow. Strouse's and Adams's collaboration on the music and lyrics, while adequate, is certainly not up to par with their Bye Bye Birdie. The score is plagued by a monotonous '60s rhythm and bogged down by four reprises. Music Director KenKatz wisely conducted his orchestra to play softly, but sometimes the lyrics just aren't worth hearing.
Fortunately, the cast's energy and several outstanding principals protect Michael L. Blau's worthwhile producation. Eden Lee Murray does a remarkable job of building the character of Margo Channing even where the script is most bare. A star at the peak of her adult career, she is torn by suspicion and self-doubt, the products of fading youth. What emerges is a sensitive, mature woman equipped with an actress's command of gesture and expression. Murray handles her songs and dance routines with poise and vitality, but more important, never loses a grip on the character she has created. Her directorboyfriend (Steven E. Kaplan) also acts and sings competently, but the mechanics of the script prevent him from becoming an equally interesting personality.
Jo Ann Shotwell's Eve Harrington furnishes the essential complement to Margo. She plays the gentle, stage-struck newcomer who, after being cared for by Margo, reveals herself to be ruthlessly ambitious. It is a difficult role, calling for a complete yet convincing character change. Shotwell captures the look and manner of a naive country girl, and then with an adept change of expression emerges as a four-star bitch.
Interesting choreography by Bob Berger (who also supplies many laughs as Margo's gay hairdresser) provides an escape from the confines of book, music, and lyrics. A lithe dancer as well, Berger arranges both expansive and intimate numbers imaginatively. Several numbers are choreographed on multiple levels, which helps relieve congestion on the small Leverett stage.
The overall execution, although enthusiastic, was rather sloppy. Several of the numbers were enhanced considerably by the talents of Lise Landis, whose fluidity makes virtually any step look easy, but the dancing still needs a couple of nights to gel.
I doubt applause or congratulations motivated the effort that went into this show, but for creating a viable production out of a weak musical, the cast and directors deserve an ovation just the same.