“Applause,” adapted by Comden & Green from Mary Orr’s short story and Joseph Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning film “All About Eve,” should be entertaining for those who never saw or have no special fondness for the movie. The biting backstage plot, pitting a temperamental older actress against a younger one scheming to take her place, has a basic story strong enough to keep this musical version clicking along, but the characters and scenes are exaggerated and lack emotional depth.
At first, the script follows Mankiewicz’s blueprint, presenting Eve (Jean Louisa Kelly) as a smiling serpent who insinuates herself into Margo Channing’s affections. Margo (Sheryl Lee Ralph) is so moved by Eve’s worship that she lets the seemingly vulnerable stranger run her affairs.
While playwright Buzz Richards (Kevin Chamberlin), his wife, Karen (Veanne Cox), and Margo’s fiancee, Bill Sampson (Kevin Earley), fall under Eve’s spell, Margo’s cynical hairdresser Duane (John Fleck) eyes the interloper with justifiable suspicion.
In a cast populated with gifted performers, few of them relate convincingly to each other or seem at home in their roles. Ralph has presence and a winning way with a witty line, but she doesn’t capture the pathos and insecurity of the character or her terror of aging. She and Kelly don’t generate a sense of female bonding, and Cox isn’t comfortable as the devoted Karen, who drains Margo’s gas tank to teach her a lesson and ends up enabling Eve to gain stardom.
Kelly is an outstanding singer, but her personality and style are so different from Ralph’s that they don’t seem as though they could ever be rivals for parts or men. Her Eve lacks the required calculation and cunning, and omitting the moment when she blackmails Karen to get Margo’s part in an upcoming play is a disastrous error, since it was the one scene that clearly demonstrated her true, evil nature.
Nor is Kelly saccharine enough to provoke Margo’s comment, “Eve, give me a double martini and don’t stick your finger in it — I might die of sugar poisoning.”
Removing the devastatingly vitriolic critic Addison DeWitt, an Oscar-winning role for George Sanders, and replacing him with Margo’s producer was a mistake in 1970 and remains one. Benedict (James Avery) is forceful in his cynical scenes with Eve, but he’s written as a nastily conventional heavy.
Lack of script logic also hampers “Applause.” In this version, Karen admits to Margo that she tampered with her car and caused her to miss a performance, and Margo forgives her on the spot, a response that defies all credibility.
Director David Lee keeps the musical sequences consistently energetic, even if the Strouse & Adams song cues confirm Walter Kerr’s observation that the book could do without music if it had to. That’s fundamentally the trouble: Events move like a play, and many of the musical interludes burst in during crucial confrontations, interrupting moments when you want them to finish out in dialogue.
Quieter numbers fare best. Earley’s ringingly melodic voice is showcased excitingly on “Think How It’s Gonna Be” and on his duet with Ralph, “Something Greater.” The title tune also captivates, though it seems odd that the production’s most powerful number — a tune with star-making quality — is performed by Scarlett and ensemble rather than one of the two leads.
Other group songs take a hokier route, especially “But Alive,” featuring Ralph, Fleck, Kelly and a stageful of dancers in poses that recall ’60s dance shows. The sight of three male waiters in aprons, turning to expose their bare butts while satirizing “Oh Calcutta!,” provides a reminder that “Applause” does anything it can for a reaction, as compared to its source material, which was the definitive example of class.
Philip G. Allen’s sound boasts his customary clarity, and Gerald Sternbach’s orchestra offers skillful renditions that give needed shading to Mark Esposito’s choreography. Costumes by Randy Gardell are appropriate for Eve, over-the-top for Margo.