By Joel Benjamin
New York’s premier nightclub/cabaret 54 Below’s innovative new series revisits some of the best musical theater works of the last few decades, staging them in bare bones concert versions, with some of the best performers in New York’s enormous talent pool, often including artists who were in the original productions. Under the auspices of Phil Geoffrey Bond, 54 Below’s programmer, 54 Sings Applause was the latest addition on April 13th. It proved to be an exciting, song and gossip-filled—sold-out!—event, boding well for the future of the series.
Mr. Bond was the genial MC, tying the songs together with funny narrative and illustrative slides shown on TV monitors on either side of the stage. Applause (1970), based on All About Eve, the 1950 Bette Davis/Ann Baxter classic film and the original Mary Orr short story, was created by Charles Strouse (music), Lee Adams (lyrics) and Betty Comden & Adolph Green (book) with direction and choreography by Ron Field. The show was Lauren Bacall’s first musical. She played Margo Channing who was pitted against Penny Fuller’s Eve Harrington. Also in the original cast were Len Cariou, Lee Roy Reams, Bonnie Franklin and Brandon Maggart whose careers were immensely helped by this show, which was a big hit, running nearly 900 performances at the famed Palace Theater. Part of the Applause lore bandied about were stories of the last minute replacements in the original cast and the celebrities who went into the show later, such as Ann Baxter (the film’s Eve). Rita Hayworth actually began rehearsing the Margo part, but her early Alzheimer’s, misdiagnosed as alcoholism, sadly prevented what might have been an inspired choice.
Penny Fuller opened the evening with a tough “Welcome to the Theater,” the bitchy, but wise summation of show business’ ups and downs. Len Cariou, the original Bill Sampson (Margo’s lover), told of his audition process which involved being given the once-over by Bacall. He sang “Think How It’s Gonna Be,” his tender song of parting as his character takes off for Hollywood. Mr. Cariou’s vignette about a “costume malfunction” was hilarious. Ms. Fuller returned with Eve’s “The Best Night of My Life,” her wide-eyed song of gratitude for Margo’s kindness. Lee Roy Reams performed “She’s No Longer a Gypsy” and the title song “Applause, Applause” as a tribute to Bonnie Franklin who sadly passed away last year.
Several Broadway stars took on Margo’s songs. Karen Mason sang “Who’s That Girl?” in which Margo tries to come to terms with just who she really is. Ms. Mason gave the song her usual insightful interpretation. Cady Huffman was all soft edges in “Hurry Back,” Margo’s seductive appeal to her lover, and Dee Hoty soared in Margo’s homage to true love and domesticity, “Something Greater.” Judy McLane’s “But Alive” wrung all the drama out of the song.
A small chorus—Scott Coulter, Teresa Genesco, Rob Mather and Lucia Spina—filled out the cast with renditions of songs like the gossipy “Backstage Babble.”
The three-member band was led by music director John Fischer with Larry Lelli on drums and Tom Hubbard on bass. Thanks for Mr. Fischer’s arrangements, the music sounded fresh and vibrant.
Other shows in the series were Kander & Ebb’s The Act and Honeymoon in Vegas, the Jason Robert Brown/Andrew Bergman musical which is headed to Broadway. Check with 54 Below’s website for future concerts.
*Photos: Maryann Lopinto
254 West 54th St., between Broadway & 8th Ave.
New York, NY
Tickets & Information: 646-476-3551 or www.54Below.com