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The Apple Tree

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Let there be light!

A ray of hope has finally cut through the gloominess that's marked many recent months of major New York musicals. And it's arrived in a very unusual form, that of the Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical The Apple Tree, which is playing only through Monday at City Center! as the final entry of this year's Encores! series. The season couldn't go out on a more thrilling note.

This is a production in which just about everything glows with a brilliance so pure that the easiest explanation is the intervention of a higher power. It's easy to want to question why the proven talents involved here would need outside assistance: Director Gary Griffin (who helmed two of the very best recent Encores! outings, The New Moon and Pardon My English), musical director Rob Fisher (conducting his last Encores! concert), and stars Kristin Chenoweth, Malcolm Gets, and Michael Cerveris make magic for a living.

The life-affirming surprise is that they've all managed to do it here with one of the most modest entries of the 1960s. The original 1966 Broadway production lasted just over a year, and despite performances from stars Alan Alda and Barbara Harris (who won a Tony for her work), little from the show entered the standard repertoire. Hits of more identifiable historical importance and theatrical innovation in the years immediately following - Cabaret and Hair come to mind - couldn't aid this show's assimilation at the time.

But the pleasures of The Apple Tree ring with even greater distinction today, when stages are glutted with musicals that mock the integration of book and score, and it stands as a reminder of wonderful things can be accomplished when the heart is as engaged as the wallet. And Griffin and Fisher have put every bit of their hearts into making sure that each of the three one acts comprising this production are as fulfilling as possible, musically, comedically, and dramatically.

So when the curtain rises on "The Diary of Adam and Eve," the longest and most satisfying piece (based on a Mark Twain story), be prepared to laugh - there are jokes aplenty, most of them derived from putting a modern spin on the real first family (played by Gets and Chenoweth; Cerveris is the persuasive snake). But also be ready to be genuinely moved: Adam and Eve's songs, generally light, wistful ruminations about their evolving feelings for each other and the world around them, are unadorned in composition but refreshing and even heartbreaking in their honesty.

The other two segments, "The Lady or the Tiger?" (based on Frank R. Stockton's story) and "Passionella (adapted from Jules Feiffer), don't allow the same kind of emotional connections. And the music, in changing from simplistically melodic to scorching brass and blues (the orchestrations are by the late, great Eddie Sauter), somehow becomes less distinctive. But these segments give Gets and Chenoweth even more opportunities to impress as the deceptively versatile performers they are, and allow them to revel in the type of jazzy musical comedy they seldom engage in.

Chenoweth especially dazzles. She's fine in the former piece as Princess Barbßra, who must choose the fate (marriage or death) of her illicit lover, but is even better in the second, as chimney sweep Ella and the glamorous movie star she becomes with the help of her Prime Time fairy godmother (Cerveris again). The innocence she conveys as Eve in the evening's first piece is no less miraculous, and is completely free of the comic shtick she so often falls into. Time and again throughout the show, Chenoweth demonstrates why she's one of our most valuable performers, and she's seldom been used to better advantage than she is here.

Gets, generally adopting the refined, urbane confusion he plays so well, is terrific in all three playlets; so are Cerveris and the members of the singing and dancing ensemble. And Griffin's direction, Andy Blankenbuehler's unobtrusive choreography, David Ives's unobtrusive script adaptation, and the physical production (most notably in costume designer Jess Goldstein's series of increasingly gaudy getups for the leading lady) all rank among the strongest I've seen at any Encores!.

But if the main attraction for many will be Chenoweth, whose luminous stage presence can encompass every nook and cranny of the cavernous City Center or make you feel she's performing for you alone, her triumph here shouldn't (and doesn't) overshadow the show. It's as embraceable and lovable as a Victorian teddy bear, full of charms that don't dull just with the passing of the decades. Its values will never go out of style, and its temperance of Broadway glitziness in the last two pieces with the quiet, unassuming beauty of the first results in a more fulfilling musical theatre experience than you get from most shows that tell one evening-length story today.

If there's a marked contrast between those shows and this one, so be it. Broadway is always evolving, and if this show is in a way a relic from a more na´ve time, it's a wonderful one perfectly in keeping with the Encores! mission of preserving our rich theatrical heritage, even for the most minor of shows. If posterity neglected to recognize The Apple Tree the first time around, Griffin, Fisher, Chenoweth, Gets, and everyone else involved with this production are helping to rewrite the history books in the happiest, most illuminating way imaginable.

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New York City Center Encores!
The Apple Tree
Through Monday, May 16
City Center Main Stage, 130 West 56th Street
Schedule and Tickets at CityTix« 212.581.1212