TV's Powers earns cheers for this round of 'Applause' Review: The small-screen star delivers a stagy performance, but proves worthy of a time-honored role.

October 31, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Applause" is about a larger-than-life star, and its lead role has traditionally been played by a larger-than-life star. Lauren Bacall originated it on Broadway, and Bette Davis played it in the movie on which "Applause" is based, "All About Eve."

So how does a mere TV star fare? In the Broadway-bound revival that opened last night at the Mechanic Theatre, "Hart to Hart's" Stefanie Powers does fine.

If you're always aware that Powers is acting, always on, (maybe even always Jennifer Hart), well, some of that is built into the role. After all, Powers' character, Margo Channing, is truly a creature of the theater. Granted, Powers' stagy presence seems overdone at times, but perhaps the actress will loosen up in the extensive pre-Broadway tour.

This revival had the full input of the musical's creative team -- composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Lee Adams and book writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green -- and though much of the production remains faithful to the 1970 original, there are some welcome changes, beginning with moving the title song to the top of the show and giving it to Margo and chorus.

Like "All About Eve," the musical is told in flashback. The context for the song is now the Tony Awards ceremony in which Margo presents the best actress award to newcomer Eve Harrington. The title song takes the form of a production number on the Tony broadcast.

Not only is this a solid -- and recognizable -- musical opening, it also gives Powers a chance to demonstrate her singing ability from the get-go. And, though her voice has a decidedly nasal quality, it's an able voice.

At the end of the first act, the nasalness actually serves her well, helping put across her sarcastic "Welcome to the Theatre" -- Margo's angry warning to back-stabbing Eve, who has just wheedled her way into being the star's understudy.

Powers also gets one of the show's two new songs -- the finale, "I Don't Want to Grow Old." It's a much more gracious, not to mention less chauvinistic, closing than the original, "Something Greater," in which Margo promised to be to her man "what a woman should be."

In the role of Eve, the production fittingly introduces an unknown -- a 1996 Juilliard graduate named Kate Jennings Grant, who wisely underplays her scheming character, a self-proclaimed starstruck farm girl who doesn't merely admire Margo Channing, she wants to assume her life.

John Dossett, who plays Margo's romantic interest, Bill, her director, has a rich singing voice and warm presence, but since Margo makes such a point of his younger age, it would help if he didn't have gray hair.

Other skillful portrayals are those of the playwright, Buzz, by Stuart Zagnit, whose Michael Tucker-esque cuteness is well suited to his wife's description of him as "a funny-looking, lovable little playwright," and Margo's hairdresser/factotum, Duane, by Darrell Carey, who brings comedic flair to the show's other new song, "She Killed Them!" (which replaces "She's No Longer a Gypsy").

Though Gene Saks' direction frequently feels posed, Ann Reinking's spirited choreography helps reinforce the show's 1970 setting, particularly in the opening Tony Awards scene and the disco number, "But Alive." Michael Anania's sets move fluidly from backstage settings to various other locales, although the persistent presence of a movable spiral staircase is not only distracting, it makes the actors' entrances irritatingly repetitive.

The original "Applause," which also tried out at the Mechanic, was Bacall's Broadway musical debut, and this show will be Powers' first on the Great White Way. Though she has a better singing voice than Bacall, Powers lacks Bacall's eclat, which seemed a prerequisite for Margo -- the quintessential Broadway diva -- the first time around.

If mere ability is sufficient, Powers is up to the task. But if a bitchy star aura is what it takes, then good-girl Jennifer Hart may not have been the right place to look.

Although Anania's set includes an applause sign, this production should have no trouble earning applause in its own right on the road. On Broadway, where the stakes are higher and the stars need to shine brighter, the applause sign may well be called into service.

'Applause'

4 Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 10

Tickets: $35-$55

Call: (410) 752-1200

Pub Date: 10/31/96

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