Amazing Journey

REVIEW:The Apple Tree
The New York Times
May 15, 2005
by Ben Brantley


The gods of musical theater are merciful, after all. After leading trusting New York audiences through an especially painful season in purgatory (with a side trip to hell, via "Good Vibrations"), they have now taken the suffering faithful into a cozy corner of paradise, where mortals sing like angels and old lame jokes discover that they can walk again. This place is called, as it should be, Eden - well, for the first act anyway - and it is somewhere you should definitely spend time if you need reassurance that musicals can still float next door to heaven.

"The Apple Tree," which runs at City Center only through Monday, is the final production of this season's Encores! series of Great American Musicals in Concert. And this life-giving interpretation of Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock's sweet but slender show, which lets the astounding Kristin Chenoweth fly over the moon in three different roles, is enough to make a believer of anyone who has started to doubt the series' reason to be.

Directed by Gary Griffin, and featuring expert performances from Malcolm Gets and Michael Cerveris, "The Apple Tree" restores faith in this series's ability to supply pure showbiz magic, the kind found in those transporting resurrections of vintage shows (from "Call Me Madam" to "Chicago") that Encores!, created in 1994, provided for nearly a decade before seeming to run out of enchantment.

A triptych of singing fables about Man and Woman (yes, with capital letters, please) through the ages, "The Apple Tree" received friendly but hardly ecstatic reviews when it opened on Broadway in 1966 for a 463-performance run. Though it featured a Tony-winning performance from the sublime Barbara Harris - who vanished, Garbo-like, from the Broadway stage shortly after - this follow-up to Mr. Harnick and Mr. Bock's superhit "Fiddler on the Roof" never felt bound for immortality. The show isn't much more than a series of cute comic sketches, drawn on paper that seemed destined to yellow quickly, with some agreeable tunes to perk things up.

But this production demonstrates that with the right talents on hand to supply texture and color, even cartoon sketches can be made to look like old master paintings. And the elegant simplicity with which it achieves this transformation makes most current Broadway musicals look either embarrassingly overdressed (toot toot to you, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang") or downright tatty (hey, "Sweet Charity").

Based on short stories by Mark Twain, Frank R. Stockton and Jules Feiffer, "The Apple Tree" begins with Adam and Eve meeting cute in Eden, moves on to an ancient barbaric kingdom to recrack that chestnut of a conundrum known as "The Lady or the Tiger" and concludes with the latter-day fairy tale "Passionella," in which a sooty chimney sweep turns into a Marilyn Monroe look-alike.

As Jack Viertel, the Encores! artistic director, points out in his program notes, "The Apple Tree" capitalized on the vogue for bright, quick-take satire that was then blossoming in the United States in television revues like "That Was the Week That Was" and stage shows like "An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May." (It was no accident that Mr. Nichols directed the original "Apple Tree.")

Such humor generally has a limited shelf life. But this production elicits a sweetness at the core of "The Apple Tree," turning material that might seem quaintly sexist or buffoonish into remarkably fresh comic and musical stylings. Like Mr. Harnick and Mr. Bock's songs, which speak slyly in an assortment of musical tongues, this production is an engagingly modest showoff. It milks every ounce of charm available without ever pushing for effect.

This is especially true of Ms. Chenoweth, late of "Wicked," whose talent and timing seem to grow in scope and refinement with every new project. A distinctive stage presence, with her compactly curvaceous figure and xylophone smile, Ms. Chenoweth nonetheless manages to summon an entire choir of different voices and personae.

She is forthrightly feminine as the flower-loving, bossy Eve; as glamorously, hilariously feral as a heroine from a DeMille biblical epic as a blood-lusting barbarian princess; Charlie Chaplinesque as Ella the chimney sweep; and divinely self-worshipful as Ella's alter ego Passionella, the pneumatic movie star. Even within a single song, her voice may mutate from torchy brass to operatic trills, accented with precisely matched comic postures. (She has an especially winning way with a whip.) No performer in musicals today has her range, and she may be the best argument for cloning that the theater has to offer.

Mr. Gets, as the men in Ms. Chenoweth's lives , is less obviously virtuosic but just as delightful, finding a goofy, deadpan sincerity in each of his incarnations (parts originated by Alan Alda) without sliding into preciousness. And Mr. Cerveris brings burnished off-center wit to the roles of the Snake (for the Eden sequence) and two different narrators, a folkie balladeer and a BBC-style commentator.

It would be easy for these portrayals to cross into exhibitionist excess. Any such exaggeration would make this show's appeal, admittedly of the gossamer-thin variety, evaporate. But Mr. Griffin, known for his minimalist productions of "Pacific Overtures" and "My Fair Lady," understands that talents of the wattage assembled have no need of artificial exaggeration. Every element in this production - from its lighting (by Ken Billington) to its wry use of its chorus - is pitched to underscore, not overwhelm, the natural resources of its stars and score.

That score, by the way, has surely never been better served than it is by the Encores! orchestra under Rob Fisher, capturing the assorted moods of music that morphs from slow, warm simplicity (the ballads of Adam and Eve) to restless hot jazz, Broadway-style (the second and third acts). Sadly, this is the invaluable Mr. Fisher's last production as the music director of Encores! But true to the showbiz creed that is the religion of this series, he leaves his audience grinning and aching for more.



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