The Apple Tree
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 16, 2006
The big news about the Roundabout revival of The Apple Tree is not how adorable Kristin Chenoweth is (very), but how terrifically accomplished her leading man, Brian d'Arcy James, is. This three-part musical is intended to showcase her but succeeds in making a star of him: he's versatile, charming, funny, graceful, and in great voice. Their above-the-title colleague Marc Kudisch is splendid as well. All in all, The Apple Tree is a very good time, thanks to its stars and its top-notch creative team; it helps that for once here's a revival of an old musical that's both worthy and unfamiliar—no recent indelible performances or movie version to compete with what we're enjoying on stage.
Originally produced in 1966, The Apple Tree boasts book, music, and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the team responsible for Fiorello! and Fiddler on the Roof, two shows with which this one has almost nothing else in common. It's a whimsical concoction comprising three short pieces, which are linked by the single word "brown"; they're fairy tales, of a sort—"The Diary of Adam and Eve" (from Mark Twain), "The Lady or the Tiger?" (based on the story by Frank R. Stockton), and "Passionella" (inspired by a Jules Feiffer creation).
The strongest, by far, is the first piece, which uses humor and simplicity to make the story of the very first married couple into an eternal and archetypal one. The religious aspects are largely skirted in favor of more transcendental ideas. At the outset, Eve sings
It's all so lovely
I may just weep.
I love this garden and ev'rything that's in it,
And something tells me to treasure ev'ry minute,
Blossom and bud,
Mountain and mud
Bock & Harnick—and Chenoweth—beautifully capture a sense of wonder along with a deep and evolving love to make Adam and Eve's relationship timeless. D'Arcy James is warm, sweet, and likable as Adam. A neat bonus: Alan Alda, who was Adam in the original production of The Apple Tree, provides the voice of God at the top of the show.
"The Lady or the Tiger?" and "Passionella," both shorter and somewhat less consequential, come after intermission. The first of these is about a spoiled princess named Barbára whose forbidden lover, a handsome soldier named Sanjar, is arrested by the king. This king has an unusual way of trying his prisoners: they are made to choose between two doors. Behind one is a vicious tiger. Behind the other is a beautiful lady. Stockton's story offers an eternal paradox, for Barbára has found out what's behind each door: will she sacrifice her lover to certain death or the arms of another woman? Chenoweth doesn't give us enough indication of what's going on in Barbára's head as she considers this impossible decision. But Kudisch is outstanding here as the balladeer who narrates the tale and leaves us to ponder what we might do if we had to make the same choice for our lover.
"Passionella" is pure satire. A bedraggled young woman named Ella, who works as a chimney sweep, dreams of being a movie star. Just as her life reaches its absolute lowest point, a fairy godmother (improbably portrayed by Kudisch, who doubles as the tale's suave narrator) grants Ella her wish and turns her into Passionella, a Marilyn Monroe lookalike who quickly becomes rich, famous, and adored. But achieving our heart's desire doesn't always equal happiness: that comes only when Passionella meets up with a rock idol named Flip, the Prince, Charming. The O. Henry ending is entirely foreseeable and entirely delightful. D'Arcy James steals the show this time around, parodying Elvis plus a couple of other '60s-era rockers with uncanny precision and wit. Chenoweth is lovable as Ella/Passionella, but she's neither waiflike enough to convince as the drudge nor overtly sexy enough to conjure Monroe's memory the way she needs to.
That said, The Apple Tree is, by any measure, a success. It's a great deal of fun, thanks to the witty set designs of John Lee Beatty and the solid direction by Gary Griffin (there's a bit of choreography, courtesy of Andy Blankenbuehler). The Bock-Harnick score sounds great in the hands of orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and music director Rob Fisher.
Chenoweth charms the crowd effortlessly and if this star vehicle isn't a perfect fit at least it has the advantage of being authentically sophisticated and—except for "Passionella"—not at all dated. D'Arcy James and Kudisch, meanwhile, reinforce their status as two of contemporary musical theatre's most appealing leading men; each deserves a vehicle of his own and maybe after this show they'll get them.