The Apple Tree
Kristin Chenoweth does a tour de force in the Encores! presentation of this 1966 musical with songs by Bock and Harnick.
Truly, Chenoweth has it all. She only needs to emerge from the wings for large segments of any audience to carry on like opera claques. Petite and adorable as a Yorkshire terrier parading around with a ribbon in its hair, this musical comedy vet has a clarion soprano, acting chops from here to Kalamazoo, and timing as precise as a Greenwich-mean-time clock. Sequentially playing mother-of-us-all Eve, a mythical princess called Barbára, and a chimney sweep-turned-movie-star in adaptations of short stories by (respectively) Mark Twain, Frank R. Stockton, and Jules Feiffer, Chenoweth employs her radiant smile and keen intelligence. Her Eve is cheerfully thoughtful, her semi-barbaric Bará comically jealous in her inability to crack a recalcitrant whip. Her Ella the chimney sweep is hilariously pathetic until, as Passionella, she becomes bustily self-involved, Marilyn Monroe-like in a flare-at-the-bottom sheath courtesy of costume designer Jess Goldstein. To call Chenoweth's thorough command of these roles a tour de force is only to begin recognizing the beguiling work that had portions of the first-night audience barely able to contain their whoops until the last notes of her songs had faded.
Chenoweth's enthralling of today's audiences in the way that Marilyn Miller, Adele Astaire, Mary Martin, Gwen Verdon, or Barbara Harris (who originated The Apple Tree roles) spellbound their audiences is so complete that it tends to draw attention from the equally accomplished work of her fellow cast members. For this concert revival, Malcolm Gets -- last seen on Broadway in Amour -- hits every musical and comedy note squarely, yet his characterizations are delightfully off-kilter. Gets is a stage natural with a flawless ability to phrase a lyric. His Adam is a down-to-Eden guy, his suitor to a princess cartoonishly piratical, his rock star hilariously arrogant. Perhaps because everything he does seems effortless and/or because the material in this trio of one-acts is weighted towards the female star, Gets is not received quite as resoundingly as Chenoweth at the curtain call -- but he should be.
Neither Chenoweth nor Gets -- nor Michael Cerveris as a hissing snake in "The Diary of Adam and Eve," the Balladeer in "The Lady or the Tiger?" and the Narrator in "Passionella" -- would be quite so appealing here were the Harnick-Bock-Coopersmith one-acts not intrinsically charming. Bock and Harnick practically specialized in stage charm. (Is it true that they stopped working together because they couldn't be charming to each other?) If some musical theater promotional outfit were to bestow an award for Most Charming Musical Ever Written, the Bock-Harnick-Joe Masteroff gem She Loves Me (1963) would probably win hands down, and The Apple Tree (1966) might well be the first runner-up.
Although the songwriting team could add a little sting to their work when they wanted to, they had an undeniable affinity for musical warmth and sweetness. That inclination surfaces in the first strains of The Apple Tree. Creating the Adam and Eve segment with smartly calculated simplicity, they turned "Here in Eden" and "Beautiful, Beautiful World" into something special. Eve's song about Adam, "What Makes Me Love Him," calls to mind "Do You Love Me?" from the team's Fiddler on the Roof. The second and third Apple Tree mini-tuners are more sophisticated, with B&H immediately introducing flatted notes for the flattened romance that turns to teeth-baring jealousy in "The Lady or the Tiger?" The evening's sizzling, silly show-stoppers are saved for the "Passionella" sequence, in which Chenoweth belts and Gets rocks.
Gary Griffin has directed this Apple Tree with commendable understatement, and the musicals' blissful collective theme comes through. These are three love stories. You could say that "The Diary of Adam and Eve" is a reminder of the original boy-meets-girl plot and the other two tales are variations on it. Although there's no resolution to the narrative of "The Lady or the Tiger?", it's as much about love and its ramifications as are the Twain favorite and Feiffer's satirical 1960s treatment of what enduring love requires. Nothing could be sweeter than this fine production of a show from what truly feels like a far more innocent time.