Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Kristin

"The Apple Tree" presented by The Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, December 12, 2006

Ben Brantley gushes like a schoolgirl whenever Patti LuPone or Kristin Chenoweth are onstage. I understand his admiration and share it, but not quite to the point of gushing like a schoolgirl. (Have you picked up on the fact that I like the phrase "gush like a schoolgirl" yet?)

Ms. Chenoweth is back on the Broadway boards in the Roundabout's latest revival of Bock and Harnick's "The Apple Tree," three one-act musicals about the power of love. For those of you who may not know the show (both of you), the first act is a retelling of the Bible, "The Diary of Adam and Eve," based on Mark Twain's short story. Act II, "The Lady or the Tiger" is based on Frank Stockton's story of the same name and Act III is "Passionella, A Romance of the '60s" based on Jules Feiffer's story.

This production is basically a restaging of the City Center Encores! production from last season. There have been some casting changes, thankfully. Gone are Malcom Gets and Michael Cerveris, replaced by Brian D'Arcy James and Mark Kudisch. I enjoyed that performance for what it was and was puzzled to see it get a Broadway run.

With Mark Twain flavor, Adam (Mr. James) and Eve (Ms. Chenoweth) set about naming the animals and plants of the world. Adam: flyers, crawlers, swimmers, growlers, hoppers. Eve: horse, goat, bear, lion, parrot, mackeral. Eventually they figure out what each other is for and with a push from the Snake (Mr. Kudisch) the apple falls from the tree, as it were. But, love conquers all, despite the unfortunate proceedings with sons Cain and Abel. As Adam, Mr. James brings a sweet earnestness to the role, immaturely bothered by the intrusion of the new creature, but his sadness is heartfelt when Eve dies at the end of the act. Ms. Chenoweth's song "What Makes Me Love Him" which just precedes that moment lets you know full well why.

A couple of questions:
  • Alan Alda is the voice of God - are you kidding?
  • Is Ms. Chenoweth's Eve a lot like Sally Brown, or is Sally Brown a lot like Eve?

As for "The Lady or The Tiger" I didn't get it at the Encores! production and it's not much improved here. A military hero, a commoner, is in love with the king's daughter, who loves him as well. His trial for this sin is to choose one of two doors. Behind the first is a tiger that will kill him. Behind the other is a beautiful maiden, whom he will marry (whether he wants to or not). Since the accused makes the choice, he is responsible for his own fate. She learns from the tiger trainer which door will hold the tiger for his trial, then learns that her own handmaiden will be the lady behind the other. To see him killed would be torture. To see him marry another would be torment. Which door will she send him to?

Who knows?

Who cares?

This act is not a great bit of theatre, nor is this part of the production. Costumes improve dramatically from Act I, but the set still looks cheap - like an Encores! set does. It's one thing to create a minimalist set because you're either at:

a) a performance by a company with an interesting artistic vision and interpretation of the material, or
b) a performance with a clever creative team who manages to make the results of a small budget look intentional.

This just looks cheap, which is pretty disappointing from John Lee Beatty. He's done some of the most amazing interior sets I've seen on Broadway, from the shiplike residence in Heartbreak House, to the Hamptons home in Naked Girl on the Appian Way and many, many in between. Mr. James as the soldier gives a nice Kirk Douglas imitation during his trial, but otherwise is just satisfactory.

The other weakness is revealed here with the poor vocals from the dancing chorus. They are a pretty chorus, but can hardly sing a note. Choreography also appears to have been phoned in for this act.

The last act, "Passionella..." is a Cinderella tale of a lady chimney sweep who wants to be a movie star. Ms. Chenoweth really shines, as does the rest of the cast in this part of the show. Her frumpy, awkward and shy Ella sings with an endearing weakness. Once she's transformed by her Fairy Godmother (Mr. Kudisch doing double duty along with narrating this act), she's a movie star from the Huntley Brinkley Report until the Late Late Show every night. She meets her Prince Charming, Flip Prince Charming (Mr. James) and is smitten. Mr. James does a nice British 60's rocker bit with this role.

The sets are more interesting, relatively speaking (mylar rain curtains for everyone!), as costumes and choreography seem to step up a bit as well.

Having only seen "The Apple Tree" in these two performances, I have to wonder if much of the weakness comes from the material. Act I is basically just for the two leads. Act II is a throw-away. Act III finally starts to really feel like musical theatre. It looks like this was Gary Griffin's take on the show as well. Lighting was a little conspicuous, but the sound was masterfully executed by Production Sound Engineer, Pitsch Karrer.

I was surprised to see so many empty seats for a subscription musical. On the other hand, if you're not a fan of Ms. Chenoweth (and I am) what's the draw?

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