Amazing Journey

REVIEW:The Apple Tree
The Journal News
May 15, 2005
by Jacques Le Sourd

  "The Apple Tree" may never have been a very good show, but it's a whale of a vehicle for a Broadway star like Kristin Chenoweth. She gets to play three totally different leading roles in one evening.

It's like a great, three-part audition piece. Chenoweth's performance cries out: Will somebody please write a new musical for me?

This extraordinary performance by the gifted actress who played Glinda the Good Witch (the one who sang "Popular") in "Wicked," will be seen all too briefly, and by a sadly limited number of theatergoers. "The Apple Tree," which opened Thursday and runs through Monday night, is the final show of the season for Encores!, the widely admired concert series.

It's also the final Encores! for musical director Rob Fisher, who has helmed the series since its start in 1994. He will be followed by Paul Gemignani, a highly respected Broadway musical director who has conducted some 35 shows, including most of those by Stephen Sondheim. Next season's lineup has not been announced, but the prospects for the survival of Encores! beyond the Fisher era are promising.

"The Apple Tree," with book, music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the team that gave us the much more successful "Fiddler on the Roof," was staged in 1966 as a vehicle for Barbara Harris, a now nearly-forgotten Broadway star.

The musical was a sad attempt to blow some new wind through Broadway, by presenting three essentially unrelated one-act musicals in one evening. This followed the apparently groundbreaking Off-Broadway event in which one-act plays by Edward Albee ("The Zoo Story") and Samuel Beckett ("Krapp's Last Tape') were together on one bill.

The show has a certain Broadway pedigree: With it, Mike Nichols ("Spamalot") made his debut as a director of musicals, and Alan Alda (now starring on Broadway in "Glengarry Glen Ross") played the silly role of a fantasy rock star named Flip, who was one part Bob Dylan and three parts Elvis Presley.

The orchestrations were provided by Eddie Sauter, who had come to Broadway after a legendary big-band career, and Fisher has a grand time recreating the sound of the show, which is lush and sometimes startling in its originality.

Not surprisingly, Chenoweth gets her teeth into her three unquestionably juicy roles and proves that she has star quality to spare. It's hard to take your eyes off her. But since this is a concert version of the show, you really don't have to. Her co-stars in all three parts are Malcolm Gets and Michael Cerveris, who play distinctly supporting roles.

In "The Diary of Adam and Eve," based on a Mark Twain short story, Chenoweth plays the first woman on earth as spunky and creative though saddled with some period stereotypes. She is so much better at naming things than her lumbering, nonverbal Adam (Gets, of course), whose only complaint is that she talks too much. Cerveris is amusing as the snake in the Garden of Eden, who leads Eve toward the forbidden apple with a lot of hissing double-talk.

The second part is "The Lady or the Tiger?," based on the Frank R. Stockton story. Chenoweth is the lofty Princess Barbara, imbued with royal entitlement, whose lover Sanjar (Gets again) must choose one of two doors. Behind one is a deadly tiger, and behind the other is a woman with whom Sanjar will instantly fall in love. Cerveris plays a balladeer who sings about the dangers of having a jealous lover. Chenoweth sings "I've Got What You Want" while attempting to crack a giant whip, which proves hilariously recalcitrant.

The third part is "Passionella," based on a piece by former Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer, in which Chenoweth plays a humble chimney sweep named Ella, who is temporarily transformed into a glamorous movie star. Gets is her rock-star boyfriend, and Cerveris is the narrator. Interestingly, the sexy, Marilyn Monroe-like glamour-puss is the only role of the evening that seems beyond Chenoweth's reach.

She's much more convincing as the sooty chimney sweep, singing longingly, "Oh, To Be a Movie Star."



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