The Golden Apple
Greek mythology meets the McKinley era in this Encores! revival of a cult classic.
The Golden Apple is the musical-theater equivalent of an ice cream sundae with too many toppings: Individual elements may be scrumptious, but consumed together you're likely to walk away with a massive stomachache. That is certainly true of the Encores! presentation at New York City Center. Unfortunately, this ambitious staging of an even more ambitious musical can't manage to keep the show's wings from melting under the blazing stage lights as it attempts to take flight.
The show first appeared on Broadway in 1954 and then never again, making it an ideal candidate for Encores! Jerome Moross' richly symphonic music is also a plus. Music director Rob Berman leads a full orchestra of swooning strings and sultry woodwinds with his typical dexterity, showing off a score that regularly sounds like a lost collaboration between Aaron Copland and Lorenz Hart. Lyricist John Latouche keeps us smiling with witty rhymes like "ultra physical" with "aphrodisiacal." He is less successful with his book, which satirically transposes Homer's Iliad and Odyssey to early 20th-century Washington State.
The boys in blue have just come home from that splendid little war with Spain, singing the praises of Teddy Roosevelt. All of the soldiers lust after Helen (Lindsay Mendez), but she is already married to Menelaus (Jeff Blumenkrantz). Meanwhile, soothsayer Mother Hare (N'Kenge) promises a golden apple to the winner of a bake-off among Mrs. Juniper (Ashley Brown), Miss Minerva (Alli Mauzey), and Lovey Mars (Carrie Compere). Traveling salesman Paris (Barton Cowperthwaite) serves as the judge, but he is corrupted by Lovey's promise to help him woo Helen. Seduce her he does and the two fly away in a hot-air balloon, pursued by Ulysses (Ryan Silverman) and his band of heroes. That's just the first act of this musical that only a high school Latin teacher could ever truly love.
The second act attempts to condense the entire Trojan War and the long journey home, the latter part taking the form of a vaudeville revue themed around the seven deadly sins. It's also a commentary on American military adventurism. Oh, and it's entirely sung-through. There's just so much going on, audience members are liable to tune out from sheer exhaustion.
This is inherent in the script and not for lack of effort by director Michael Berresse and his capable cast. Several performances stand out: Mendez is quite funny as Helen and croons a hypnotic rendition of the jazzy "Lazy Afternoon," the most enduring number from the show. Mikaela Bennett has a lovely, legit voice as Penelope, Ulysses' long-suffering little wife. Jeff Blumenkrantz and Jason Kravitz look and sound great together in the second act, which reimagines the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis as a Gallagher-and-Shean-style double act.
Out of necessity, Berresse keeps everything moving a mile a minute with the help of choreographer Joshua Bergasse. Some of the dances are thrillingly inventive: Paris is mute, so he communicates entirely through ballet, something Cowperthwaite does in high-flying style. Still, several of the ensemble numbers are unspecific and sloppily executed, a quality Bergasse flimsily tries to conceal with tricks and acrobatics.
The show often feels ahead of its time in its strenuous effort to entertain, as if it were composed for people with short attention spans (i.e. 21st-century audiences). New characters disappear almost as soon as they are introduced, each one with a song and dance.
This grueling pace persists right up until the very end when (3,000-year-old spoiler alert) Ulysses returns home. It's no surprise that the most hummable song of the evening is "It's the Going Home Together," an anthem of predictable domesticity that would have surely resonated with the suburb-booming audiences of 1954. The Golden Apple isn't an unpleasant show to sit through, but it seems like an awful lot of work just to reinforce the conventional wisdom of the day.