Actors and entertainers live to bask in the warm glow of audience applause. To what extent they will go in order to snag a coveted role is the central theme running through Applause, the Players Theatre season-opening production.
The musical-drama-comedy also provides commentary on the beauty of community theater, where unpaid actors and actresses and other volunteers dedicate countless hours of rehearsal and performance time in exchange for an opportunity to show off their skills while practicing the craft they so dearly love.
Directed by Berry Ayers, Applause is an updated version of the 1970s Broadway play based on the 1950 film All About Eve that featured Bette Davis in the lead role of Margo Channing. Lauren Bacall played Margo in the original Broadway production.
Played here by Kaylene McCaw, Margo is an aging actress trying desperately to hang on to her youth, her starring roles and her sometimes neglected fiancé Bill Sampson (played with grace and sympathy by Tom Westlake).
McCaw’s performance and physical similarities hint at Bette Davis, with a little Susan Lucci thrown in for good measure. She uses her singing voice to excellent effect, especially during the soul-exposing musical number “Hurry Back,” sung from her bed while she longs for Bill’s company, who’s in Rome directing a movie.
Later in the first act, during a scene involving a cocktail party taking a turn for worse, McCaw delivers that famous Bette Davis line: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
Throughout the show, McCaw looks lovely in the evening gowns and other outfits provided by the Players’ wardrobe department.
Kathryn Parks plays Eve Harrington, the scheming young actress who has designs on Margo’s roles, her lifestyle, her friends and her man.
Parks performs equally well when capturing Eve’s false naiveté early in the performance and her character’s darker side that appears when desire and success begin to go to her head, with casualties mounting along the way.
The cast of characters caught in the tangled web woven by Margo and Eve includes influential Broadway producer Howard Benedict (played by George Naylor with a touch of Jack Palance in his delivery), playwright Buzz Richards (played by Dr. Will Horton) and Buzz’s wife Karen (played by Shelley Whiteside).
Eve’s ever-faithful gay hairdresser Duane Fox, portrayed with over-the-top glee, eyebrow-raising sarcasm and amusing facial expressions by Jason Macumber, earned some of the biggest laughs of the night.
Jay Bowman does double duty, playing the interview-starved newspaper man Stan Harding and the leather-clad biker in the “But Alive” song and dance number that takes place in a Greenwich Village gay bar.
The large cast also includes a troupe of dancers, known as “gypsies,” that includes Jennifer Massie (as Bonnie) and Booker High School grad Aly Foster (as Phoebe, the third-generation understudy), joined by Booker High School students Nikki Testa, Vivienne Teyke and Jamon Buie, and Lakewood Ranch High School student Channing Weir, among others.
Players Theatre volunteers Sharon Bartley, Gayle Foster and others add experience to the gypsy ensemble that also assists with unobtrusive and cleverly-staged set changes.
The love of theater theme is exemplified in the lyrics of the act one title song “Applause,” featuring Massie and the gypsy ensemble posing the musical question and answer, ”What is it that we’re living for? Applause…”
Later in the song, Buie’s character reflects on a one-line performance in a school play that left him “hooked ever since” because his sister applauded his efforts.
Toward the end of the song, the gypsies sing the line, “Why do we work our asses off?” with the eventual answer being the desire for that soul-nourishing substance known as applause.
This theme is revisited in Margo’s act one closer, “Welcome to the Theater,” with McCaw employing her vocal talents again, this time lamenting the pros and cons of the theater life and delivering the lines:
“Welcome to the theater, to the magic, to the fun …
“Now you’ve entered the asylum, this profession unique, actors are children, playing hide and ego seek …
“Welcome to the plot you thought would run for years, welcome to the world of fears and cheers and tears …
“Welcome to the theater, with some luck you’ll be a pro, you’ll work and slave and scratch and bite, you’ll learn to kill with sheer delight … You only come alive at night when you’re in a show … Welcome to the theater, you fool, you love it so …”
Applause is well-acted and the set design, good sound quality, the three piece “orchestra” and the stage lighting add to the production’s overall excellence.
During the first intermission, one audience member said, “This is one of the best things they’ve ever done here.” In the lobby, Director Berry Ayers was greeted with cries of “Bravo, bravo,” while purchasing soft drinks between acts one and two.
The second act sees Margo coming to grips with her declining star power while Eve tries to keep her tangled web of rising stardom from unraveling.
During the curtain call Macumber received as much audience applause as the stars of the show, Parks and McCaw.
Afterwards, audience and cast members gathered in the lobby for free champagne and some opening night reflections from Ayers and Players Theatre Artistic Director Jeffery Kin.
Applause resumes on Tuesday, Sept. 25 and continues through Sunday Sept. 30, with two performances on Saturday and a show-closing matinee on Sunday.
For more information visit the Players Theatre website.