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The Apple Tree

Kristin Chenoweth, Brian d'Arcy James, and Marc Kudisch exhibit sky-high star quality in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of this three-part musical. logo
Brian d'Arcy James and Kristin Chenoweth
in The Apple Tree
(© Joan Marcus)
A frequent term for the kind of sky-high star quality that Kristin Chenoweth, Brian d'Arcy James, and Marc Kudisch exhibit profusely in The Apple Tree is "je ne sais quoi." You could also simply call it "charm," although that word is equally difficult to define with any specificity. No matter how you quantify whatever this triumvirate has, they clearly have it by the sleighful in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of the Sheldon Harnick-Jerry Bock three-part musical, which is being seen on Broadway for the first time since its 1966 bow.

When people talk about a "dream cast," this is what they mean: three of the best contemporary musical comedy performers going at their colorful assignments with all talents waving. Furthermore, when they're handed the kind of first-rate material they're handed here, the results are -- to crib from one of the utterly seductive Harnick-Bock songs -- diversified, curious, fascinating, bountiful, beautiful. I defy any of you to watch this trio at play and not keep an ear-to-ear grin on your face.

Chenoweth -- the only one of the players to have appeared in director Gary Griffin's staging of the show at City Center Encores! in 2004 -- merely has to walk out on a stage to have hearts figuratively flung at her. She's long since added her name to the list of Broadway adorables that include Marilyn Miller, Adele Astaire and Bernadette Peters.

Here, she first appears when rolled out on a grassy berm and wearing a white mini-dress that costumer Jess Goldstein has decided will suggest nudity. That's only appropriate since Chenoweth is playing Eve in the adaptation of Mark Twain's comic pieces, "Eve's Diary" and "Adam's Diary," elided here as "The Diary of Adam and Eve." (Jerome Coopersmith is credited with additional book material.) Her blonde hair flowing and her pint-sized body primed for action, Chenoweth instantly conveys the blend of innocence and sophistication the piece requires. At a time when the wink is no longer a popular facet of flirtation, Chenoweth's performance as Eve is like a series of winks.

She extends those winks through the second and third pieces as the hotsy-totsy Princess Barbara (emphasis on the second syllable) in the musicalized take on Frank R. Stockton's classic cliffhanger "The Lady or the Tiger?" and as chimney sweep Ella, who turns into a Marilyn Monroe-like movie star for a few hours every night in the adaptation of Jules Feiffer's "Passionella." The wiles Chenoweth works in all three pieces as she sings in her crystalline soprano leave the audience in all-defenses-surrendered awe.

There's one thing Chenoweth doesn't do, which is put the two men flanking her in the shade -- and that's not just because designer Donald Holder keeps his lighting shining brightly on them. Both d'Arcy James and Kudisch have glorious voices; more important, they also both have the manly grace and self-deprecation that actors such as Cary Grant and Robert Preston had to spare, but isn't a common commodity in today's musical leading men.

The dark and brooding d'Arcy James is hilarious as Adam, with steam coming out of his ear at Eve's intellectual superiority; he's flamboyant as Captain Sanjar, who has to make the daunting lady-or-tiger decision; and he's a swaggering Flip to Chenoweth's va-voom Passionella. Kudos also to Kudisch, who always has the marvelous ability to look as if he just galloped in on a bronco wearing chaps only slightly too tight for him. He appears briefly in Eden as a snakeskin-jacketed snake, and he's suave and tough while seamlessly narrating the other two Apple Tree branches.

When The Apple Tree bowed on Broadway 40 years ago -- with Barbara Harris, Alan Alda, and Larry Blyden in the leads -- the run was barely over a year, in part due to Harris' frequent absences and eventual departure. But another factor may have been that audiences weren't as prepared then as they may be now for a package of short tuners. If so, it was their loss. "The Diary of Adam and Eve," with its cornucopia of lovely melodies and its ultimately touching humor, is a perfect piece of writing that is to be cherished. "The Lady or the Tiger?" and "Passionella" are amusing spoofs that keep the good cheer going in a Carol Burnett-sketch way, especially as directed by Griffin and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler on John Lee Beatty's ultra-economical, mostly-ladders set.

A final word about charm: It's not necessarily a commodity that's greatly valued in musicals today, though as an entertainment plus it's never to be sneezed at. So do yourself a favor and fall under The Apple Tree's considerable charms.

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