APPLAUSE – Encores! February 7, 2008
APPLAUSE – February 7, 2008
The Flaming Curmudgeon is not amused. The Flaming Curmudgeon leaves at intermission. It’s sad when a show called Applause barely earns any from me. The answer to that age-old mystical query “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” is this: The Flaming Curmudgeon at the City Center Encores! performance of Applause. Musical comedy is not supposed to make me angry.
My ticket was in the Front Gallery Row E from where I could look dizzingly down on the performers. I now know exactly where the Flaming Curmudgeon belongs in the hierarchy of gaydom (yes, there is one, search for a chart on Google). Right there in the cheap seats with all the other didn’t ever make it middle-aged overweight homos with suburban aspirations who think they know anything about musical theatre. That’s me, sitting amongst them. Minding my own business. Not making a sound.
It never bodes well when the Artistic Director of the series takes the stage at curtain time to offer us some bad news. To make an apology for the leading lady, claiming, of course, that she didn’t want him to even make an apology, but making the apology anyway. Christine Ebersole has been ill. She hasn’t been with us in rehearsals this week but she managed to muddle through last night’s invited dress rehearsal and she insists on performing tonight. Do I hear Lauren Bacall laughing in the wings? No, it must be my over active imagination.
There were mistakes during the overture. And it’s a great overture. Pumping, driving, exciting. A big muffed entrance by a trumpet. Bad omen.
As much as I adore the work of Comden and Green I have to say this is not their finest work. It’s journeyman at best except for some great laugh lines that seem to be from another show. They managed to shoe-horn the plot and characters from a simply great film into a sort of sketch of a show for a star performer. It could work if the star performer wants to put a little pizzazz into it, but if she’s only walking through it, what is the point? I, too, cheered when Ms. Ebersole took the stage because I hoped she would pull through. Alas, no. She merely showed up. Oddly, she managed to pull out all the stops for the big notes at the end of songs. So I didn’t believe she was sick. I believed she just didn’t rehearse. Yet the audience kept cheering her every move. Because theatre queens will cheer for anyone who’s already earned acclaim, I guess.
But the real fault for the failure of this attempt lies with the director. Or, rather, the person who was hired to direct and choreograph. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — Kathleen Marshall is a rank hack. It’s my contention that she only got a job in showbiz in New York because her more talented brother hired her. Now we can’t get rid of her. She must work cheap and she must have no sense of shame. She must live in that wonderful other world in which to say “I work in the theatre in New York” means “I am talented.” You think that’s mean? The Flaming Curmudgeon is stifling his anger, kiddies. I’m not just flaming I’m spontaneously combusting over this one.
The intent of the Encores! series is to present semi-staged versions of seldom seen or forgotten works of the American musical theatre. Often this can breathe new life into something. Often it can just prove why a show has been forgotten. The point is that the audience is not there for a full Broadway caliber production. I champion this idea. Since the cast is usually on book for these shows, the performances should be approached directorially as staged readings. Unfortunately, Ms. Marshall doesn’t grasp this. She attempted to treat this staging as a full Broadway musical and failed resoundingly. Too many sets, terrible costumes and too much business. There is a brief first scene that takes place at the 1972 Tony Awards when Eve is presented her Best Actress award by Margo Channing. There was absolutely no need for a curtain drop with a large Tony Award emblem especially when there is an announcer who says “welcome to the 1972 Tony Awards.” Money could and should have been saved. This is a terribly written scene with Margo’s recorded “thoughts” as voiceover during Eve’s acceptance speech. Godawful. So now, already, the director has necessitated a set change because she lacks imagination. This first scene is simply a set-up for the flashback of the rest of the story. Don’t draw attention to it. So the Tony Award set curtain flies up and stagehands roll on a damn useless platform with a full dressing room set complete with props and set decoration. And an upstage doorframe. We are now backstage in Margo’s dressing room and ready for the delightful “Backstage Babble.” But we don’t need this set. We don’t need this literal presentation of place in a staged reading. It all just gets in the way since the actors are carrying around their black binders containing the script. As the song progresses eventually all the performers enter the dressing room creating a crowd. However, the director has treated the scene in that “natural” fashion that people with not enough rehearsal time use. The song should have been called “Backstage Wander Around For a While And Look Busy” because that’s what the performers did. It was just over-staged with constant movement that looked made up on the spot. It should have been formal and stylized and interesting. Don’t let the actors decide when to open and close the scripts – direct the use of the scripts, too, so that I can’t figure out that upstage chorus boy number two doesn’t have another line because he closed his book but downstage chorus girl number three is about to sing a line because she just opened her book. If the actors can’t walk and read then choose walking or choose reading, not both.
Here. I’m going to redirect us from the top of show to this point:
Overture. Applause (I mean the audience clapping, not the title of the show). As the lights change, and maybe there are some chasing spotlights, entire ensemble enters and faces upstage in some sort of stylized and promising tableau. Voiceover. “Welcome to the 1972 Tony Awards.” Margo Enters – and for godsakes don’t make her hold her own script for this, that’s what goddamn chorus boys are for! You’ve already made the actress incredibly uncomfortable. Eve accepts her award. Then when the music starts for “Backstage Babble” – BANG – ensemble turns downstage and sings. They don’t close their books to move because you’ve used the books as part of the choreography. There has been no set change because there is no need for one. At most introduce the doorframe for people to walk through. Perhaps one — at most — two chairs. Just use the performers to define the change of space. There, see how easy that was? Don’t emphasize the shortcomings of the material by burdening it with reality and furniture.
And if the costumes are going to be as bad as the ones in this production, don’t bloody bother. I believe that Christine Ebersole chose her own dreadful caftan for the party scene. Or perhaps she was backstage and forgot to put on her costume for that scene – yes, that might be the only explanation.
One of the biggest changes the original creators of this show made was to switch one role from female to male. In All About Eve Margo’s dresser and confidante is Birdie, unforgettably portrayed by the great Thelma Ritter. In the musical Applause the role is called Duane Fox and he is openly gay. This gives us a chance to visit a Greenwich Village gay bar in 1972 with Margo Channing. Now, I must digress. I am an openly gay man, in case you were wondering. It’s not about being proud and/or loud it’s about being factual. Jokes are made all the time about how many gays there are in the theatre and here is a play that tries to present an openly gay character with no closet issues. Yet, as played by Mario Cantone, one would almost not know he’s gay. Oh, yes, the situation says that he is but he’s so without any flame that it makes no sense. It’s that politically correct oh I can’t play a stereotype or lisp or limp my wrists or anything because of Stonewall and our struggle for equality and gay marriage even though one of his first lines is a camp line to Bill (Margo’s lover) “I’ll be right here when you get back.” Sometimes I think that homos are just flat out afraid to play gays. And by “gays” I mean “fags.” Here is a show that was written in 1972 and here’s a homosexual character who is the dresser and comrade of the great actress of the stage Margo Channing. Yet he doesn’t flounce or mince or have one ounce of sissy anywhere. Then when we go to the gay bar filled with Chelsea queens (so very much not 1972) they are choreographed in some jokey-homo way that has absolutely no honesty. I’m pretty sure that one or two of the dozen dancers may have been gay. With those just a little too large for any good use biceps (“guns” is the word the kiddies use, I think, but I’m old and out of touch) and the tight T-shirts and the outward masculine accoutrements. It was almost like a Tom of Finland sketch only not at all titillating. I guess the joke was that here are all these supposedly macho men and when Margo Channing comes in they literally squeal and gush. Isn’t that gay minstrelsy? Why weren’t any of them sissies? Why are gays so afraid to be portrayed at all as sissies on stage and film – unless it’s outrageously camp and the character is a complete joke? It makes me think of things like Sondheim removing the word “fag” from Company’s “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” – and people removing the term “nigger” from productions of Showboat. Watching the scene which is a dance with one of my favorite theatre songs “But Alive” I felt like I was watching something dirty. The song is so joyous (listen to the original Broadway cast recording and you will have to agree with me). Yet it wasn’t honest. Is it the fault of the performers or the director or me? I’m seriously dumbfounded. But I do know that if this is what I’m thinking while I’m watching it, then someone is not doing his or her job.
Oh, lord, I thought I was done ranting. Then I looked at my Playbill. Oops. The title number of the show, surely that must have been great and good and exciting. No, folks, it was one big in-joke. Again the director, lacking originality or understanding, she decided to overplay the entire thing. It’s supposed to be a simple sentiment song that grows into a rousing dance number. Instead “New material arranged by David Chase and orchestrated by Larry Blank” was inserted. And again, the scene was hindered tremendously by unnecessary furniture. The scene takes place at Joe Allen’s where the gypsies hang out after the show. A half-wall plastered with theatre posters (looked cheap as the dickens) flies in and the gypsies enter stage right carrying tables and chairs so that what appears to be an actual restaurant can be shown. Shown. Not imagined. In a staged reading. Once the tables are in place everyone has to grab a script. Messy. Sloppy. Incoherent. Then we get the song. Now, why anyone decided that additional material was needed is beyond me. The material consisted of a series of musical theater insider jokes. In the middle off the dance the dancers have to carry off the goddamn tables and chairs! and a small false proscenium is put in place upstage center – it doesn’t stick together at the top and wobbles ominously. Inside this they do fake Bob Fosse choreography to a tune from Chicago. The audience roared with laughter – because they thought it was funny not, like me, because they thought it was ludicrous. Then there was a bit from Follies and a bit from this and a bit from that and far too many bits in all, the concept being, I suppose, that gypsies can do anything or likely the director thinking look how clever am I. Blah blah blah. All it did was make the dance section over long. Plus, Chicago didn’t open until 1975 so how, in 1971 do these gypsies know the music and the choreography (which is from the 1995 revival, not from the original)? Again, either you’re presenting something in a specific place and time or you are not. And by adding inappropriate material you are simply saying that the original material is not worthwhile. Then why am I here?
Which is why I wasn’t for Act II.