Book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Music by Charles Strouse

Lyrics by Lee Adams

Directed and Choreographed by Christopher Pazdernik

Produced by Porchlight Music Theatre, Chicago

No Bumpy Night Here—Applause is a Big Winner

Porchlight Music Theatre undersells itself by referring to its Porchlight Revisits series as “minimally staged.” The three-night-only shows present older, rarely seen musicals on the set of Porchlight’s currently running show (in this case, Far From Heaven), and the actors carry their books. However, at the opening of Applause, the magnificent performers hardly needed any assistance. Not only were their songs exquisite, they also knew the complex choreography Christopher Pazdernik created for the show’s two big numbers, their costumes were just as good as in any full staging, and the orchestra, under the direction of Nick Sula, sounded so good, it’s a mystery why this musical ever faded from public consciousness.

Heidi Kettenring (Margo Channing), Lauren Roesner (Eve Harrington), and Michael Kingston (Howard Benedict). Photos by Andrea Beschel.

Each Porchlight Revisits show starts with artistic director Michael Weber giving a presentation on the development of the show’s original run, and its cultural context. Applause, which premiered in 1970, was meant to be an adaptation of All About Eve, but since Twentieth Century Fox would not release the rights to the film, it was adapted directly from Mary Orr’s The Wisdom of Eve. Applause featured Lauren Bacall in Bette Davis’s role, Margo Channing, but was also Bonnie Franklin’s break-out performance as a dancer simply named Bonnie. The adaptation is updated to the time it was written, and to be progressive, made Margo’s best friend a gay hairstylist. But this is no schlocky feel-good musical. The manipulative Eve’s vampirism of the haughty Broadway star Margo is as twisted a relationship as any found in the works of August Strindberg.

Kettenring (Margo), Jason Richards (Buzz), and Khaki Pixley (Karen)

Heidi Kettenring brings to Margo her celebrated voice, as well as the character’s tragic vanity, aggression, and insecurity over her age. But Margo is not a one-dimensional battleax; she’s genuinely well-meaning, loves her partner, and can be gracious even after suffering humiliating defeat. Kettenring’s low register beautifully delivers the fast-paced “Who’s That Girl?” adds a comic twist to the vaudevillian “Good Friends,” (which she shares with Jason Richards as Buzz Richards and Khaki Pixley as Karen Richards), and provides the first act closer, “Welcome to the Theatre,” with its tragic instability and defiance. In short, she’s ideal for carrying the musical. Making her Chicago debut, Lauren Roesner plays Eve Harrington with seductive, demure charm. But her expression when she finally initiates her plan to usurp Margo is one of the smuggest I have ever seen. At the end of the play, Eve reprises Margo’s “But Alive” and adds her own “One Halloween” in an intrinsically hammy moment she goes for with full gusto, reveling in finally revealing herself after two hours of soft tones and dainty movements as a nightmarish, teeth-gnashing witch. It’s a moment Roesner earns, having been able to play off of Kettenring’s intense performance, and it works amazingly well in Pazdernik’s staging.

Kettenring (Margo, center) and the cast of Applause

Kettenring and Roesner have a heroic ensemble to support them. David Schlumpf, as Margo’s boyfriend Bill Sampson, sports a 70s wig and a huge heart. (EDIT: I’ve been informed that I was mistaken about this, and the actors actually do an impressive job with their own hair and costumes.) He’s one of the many people who sees Margo’s goodness, but gets gradually worn down by her paranoia and misplaced anger. Ryan Lanning, as the aforementioned hair stylist, humanizes his role, and adds humor without being the target of it. (Margo and Eve just demand to be commented on cattily.) Kyrie Courter, as Bonnie, leads the hilarious titular song with adorable grace, in what musical aficionados will recognize as a send-up of the most popular Broadway numbers up to that point. Applause is a show about show business, and as such, there’s a weird layering at work, which is heightened by Weber’s opening speech about the biographical similarities between Lauren Bacall and her character. But this limited production is so outstanding, it will hopefully grow into a full staging during somebody’s main season. If you go, be sure to catch Weber’s pre-show; you’ll appreciate Applause all the more.

Highly Recommended

Jacob Davis
[email protected]

Reviewed March 1, 2016

Playing at Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont, Chicago. Tickets are $30.