Amazing Journey

REVIEW: Chenoweth Strong in 'Apple Tree'
May 15, 2005
by Michael Kuchwara


Star performance alert! The performer in question is Kristin Chenoweth, and the show is "The Apple Tree," a rarely seen Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical from 1966, now being revived at City Center by "Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert."

The perky, blond Chenoweth, seen last season on Broadway in "Wicked," has megawatt stage presence. Almost single-handedly, she lifts this minor musical by the men who wrote "Fiddler on the Roof," "Fiorello!" and "She Loves Me," into the musical-theater stratosphere.

The woman sings divinely, whether the melodies are operatic, jazz-flecked or more traditional musical comedy. As for her acting, if there is a laugh to be gotten, Chenoweth, a savvy comic, snares it.

"The Apple Tree," cleanly directed here by Gary Griffin in a streamlined production, is an odd concoction. It's composed of three one-act musicals -- based on short stories by Mark Twain, Frank R. Stockton and Jules Feiffer -- tied together by a common theme: the consequences of temptation.

Those are most readily apparent in the evening's curtain raiser and most fully realized segment. "The Diary of Adam and Eve" is sweet and whimsical. Fortunately, Chenoweth, as a confident, chipper Eve, and Malcolm Gets, as a continually perplexed Adam, minimize its cuteness while maximizing its emotional content.

It also contains "What Makes Me Love Him," the show's loveliest song, a number Chenoweth delivers with considerable feeling. In Twain's version of the tale, Adam and Eve grow closer after they have been thrown out of the Garden of Eden by God (the prerecorded voice, most appropriately, of James Earl Jones). Adversity brings them together.

In Act 2, we get Chenoweth as the avenging female in a version of Stockton's "The Lady or the Tiger?" In this Arabian Nights-style fantasy, a man must choose one of two doors and get what lies behind it -- a woman or a tiger. And will the princess (Chenoweth), who loves him, too, secretly signal which door is correct and send him to his true love -- or the tiger?

The third act presents Feiffer's terminally hip "Passionella," the story of a forlorn chimney sweep (Chenoweth) who wants to become a moooooooovie star. Ella gets her wish, turning into a Marilyn Monroe-like screen goddess who attracts the attention of a drugged-out rock musician (Gets).

"Passionella" is the most dated of the pieces, celebrating a beat-poet, early 1960s style that Bock captures in his strong period melodies, showcased here in Eddie Sauter's superb orchestrations.

Also in the small cast is Michael Cerveris, who hasn't much to do, although he is a fine, sibilant snake in Eden and serves as a narrator of sorts for the final two mini-musicals.

"The Apple Tree" is Chenoweth's show, and she revels in it, ending the 2005 "Encores!" season on a high note she hits with ease.



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