By Scott Harrah
The Roundabout Theatre Company is one of finest resources in New York theater because they revive lesser-known musicals from yesteryear and introduce them to a new generation. This is certainly the case with “The Apple Tree,” and it has something that makes it transcend other revivals of 2006: Kristin Chenoweth. The 38-year-old who won a Tony for “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown” in 1999 and received critical raves and a Tony nomination for her role as Glinda the Good Witch in “Wicked” in 2003 has earned her status as a Broadway star. She’s appeared in several Hollywood films and TV shows, but her vocal talents have established her as a staple of the American musical theater. The diminutive blonde has a grand, soaring coloratura voice that belies her tiny frame, and this musical is the perfect forum for Chenoweth’s inimitable pipes.
“The Apple Tree” was first seen on Broadway in 1966, with Alan Alda and Barbara Harris in the lead roles, and was revived last year off-Broadway at City Center. The show is a triptych of three loosely connected, humorous vignettes that might be unremarkable with a less-talented cast. The first sketch, “Adam and Eve,” based on a story by Mark Twain, is the strongest and most serious of the three. With a utilitarian set made up of ladders, a makeshift cottage, and a few sparse props, it is up to Chenoweth as Eve and Brian d’Arcy James as Adam to make us believe we are in Eden, and they do so with conviction. As Eve yearns for Adam’s affection, we feel her frustration as he consistently rejects her. Mark Twain, an atheist renowned for his often-quoted epigram “faith is believing what you know ain’t so,” may seem like an unlikely candidate for writing the story that is the foundation of Christianity and Judaism, but Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s richly textured music and lyrics overshadow any of Twain’s original satire, giving the piece reverence and veracity. Marc Kudisch, as the Snake that tempts Eve into sampling the Forbidden Fruit, brings wit and an eerie sincerity to the fabled creature.
The second story, “The Lady or the Tiger?,” is the most lavish and colorful, with Marc Kudisch narrating as a guitar-playing balladeer. Although author Frank R. Stock set this fable, written circa 1887, in a “semi-barbaric kingdom,” this production opts for an Arabian setting, with a chorus of primarily WASP harem girls straight out of the “I Dream of Jeannie” school of depicting Arabs as white Americans. Indeed, Chenoweth, as the distraught Princess Barbara, seems more like Barbara Eden in a red wig than a true Barbarian. In this monarchy, ruled by her father, King Arik (Walter Charles), prisoners are subjected to what the sovereign considers a fair trial: They are given the choice of two doors. Behind one door is a beautiful woman who the accused must marry. However, behind the other door is a ferocious tiger that will devour a man in seconds, and any defendant who selects this door is immediately considered guilty. When Princess Barbara falls in love with Captain Sanjar (d’Arcy James), the two sing of “Forbidden Love (in Gaul),” one of the only ties to the previous Adam and Eve vignette. Captain Sanjar is a commoner, and it is a crime to be romantically involved with royalty, so the king has the man arrested, and the princess must consult with the tiger’s keeper (Kudisch) to find out which door her lover must choose. Although the princess learns what is behind each door, she is not pleased to learn that the woman behind one door has designs on Sanjar. The unresolved ending is one of literature’s greatest mysteries, and is marvelously depicted here with the story’s classic lack of closure.
The final tale, based on “Passionella: A Romance of the ’60s” by Jules Feiffer, is also rooted in fantasy. Chenoweth plays Ella, a chimney sweep who spends her nights glued to TV and dreams of being a movie star. Kudisch once again is the narrator, and a mysterious fairy godfather appears in Ella’s TV set one night and grants her wish. The frumpy woman is transformed into Passionella, the celebrity she has always yearned to be, but her wish is provided with an unpleasant catch. Chenoweth’s buxom blonde, voluptuous Passionella has the glamour and sweetness of Marilyn Monroe, and she conveys the character’s delusions with zeal in such songs as “Oh, To Be A Movie Star.” Brian d’Arcy James is a pure ham as the pseudo-intellectual British rocker Flip, a man that is not the least bit interested in Passionella’s pneumatic measurements. Together, d’Arcy James, Chenoweth and Kudisch are an imposing trio. There is little correlation between this story and the others. However, thanks to Gary Griffith’s tight directing, the three performers’ solid acting and singing gives this trilogy the depth it needs to hold the show’s sometimes-weak thematic threads together.
John Lee Beatty’s minimalist sets simply compliment the performances and the engaging score, allowing the narrative and the actors to shine without coating everything in unnecessary glitz. The cast and Harnock and Bock’s outstanding score make “The Apple Tree” a show that could have seemed pointless and dated under less able hands one of the year’s most intriguing revivals.