The Siegel Column

4 Stars: The Apple Tree

In this age of musical theater in which so many shows are produced with stars who are purposefully not promoted to the public (so that replacements can more readily shuffle in and out of productions that run for years), it is downright retro to produce a genuine star vehicle like The Apple Tree. This is a show like The Boy From Oz starring Hugh Jackman that will close when its incandescent star, Kristin Chenoweth, decides to leave. You may assume that the ostensible closing date of March 7, 2007 is the last day of Chenoweth's contract. The show will extend only if she decides she wants to stay. There is no one on this planet who could replace her. If that isn't stardom, what is?

The revival of this 1966 show with book, music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick is built around Chenoweth's brilliance, much like the original production was carried on the Tony Award-winning shoulders of Barbara Harris. Taking nothing away from the material itself, which is perfect in the first act and pretty damned good in the second, it is fundamentally designed to give a gifted performer the opportunity to shine. In the hands of a musical comedy genius like Chenoweth, audiences will come away rightfully believing that they've seen a performance the likes of which they will rarely ever see again.

In the Adam and Eve tale that begins this trilogy of love stories Chenoweth creates (you'll excuse the expression) a completely original woman. With deft comic touches she is as funny as she is adorable. Brian D'Arcy James, who heretofore has been best known for his ferocity as an actor, displays a delightful, understated comic gift. As Adam, he is Chenoweth's perfect foil. As the serpent, Marc Kudisch gives a sinuously sly performance that is as on target as it is devil-may-care. Add up the writing of this first piece, plus these three impeccable actors, a simple but amusing set by John Lee Beatty, exquisite orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, crystal clear sound design by Dan Moses Schreier, and Gary Griffin's simple and direct direction, and you will glimpse musical theater's Garden of Eden.

The subsequent two segments have their share of wit and whimsy. Were it possible (which it isn't) to do these pieces so that the first one instead came last, no one would be complaining because the build toward the finale would be perfect. Be that as it may, The Apple Tree is worth an orchard of most Broadway shows, and its star gives the kind of performance that defines musical comedy.

5 Stars: Spring Awakening

When Grey Gardens moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway it arrived as a significantly improved product. Spring Awakening, which perhaps didn't need as much fixing as its Tony competition, nonetheless transformed itself from a mesmerizing and flashy downtown musical that seemed most notable then for its direction by Michael Mayer, into a stunning and genuinely original new Broadway musical that has heart and soul as well as a wonderful, idiosyncratic pop score!

This audience of knowledgeable readers will be spared a plot rundown, so suffice it to say that we witness the suffering and turmoil of a bunch of teenagers, circa the late 19th century in a small German town, who are trying to come of age while their parents and teachers are doing everything in their power to hold back the clock. Okay, it's more complicated than that, but it's a start. Most significantly, this is a musical told in two time frames at virtually the same time. The action is unfolding in 1890 but, whenever an actor picks up a microphone or straddles a mike stand we are in the here and now, hearing their interior monologues in a rock/pop infused score by Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater (lyrics and book).

Watching a panting young man ask the pretty young girl with whom he has just had sex if she is all right, only to see her scoop up a microphone and sing her response in an idiom totally foreign from her world, is nothing if not jarring; this is taking the conventions of musical theater to a new extreme, but there is something exhilarating in the boldness of the action. One might even call it liberating. There has been so much resistance in the last few decades to the conventions of musical theater of someone simply breaking into song that the idea that these characters would pull out microphones in the middle of a 19th century story to sing pop and rock n' roll is utterly without precedent.

Breaking rules is one thing, but writing a sensitive story with compelling characters who sing a score that contains both strong melodic lines and oftentimes beautiful pop lyrics that verge on poetry is yet another thing altogether. The musical is not only very well sung, it is extremely well-acted by an impressive ensemble. Two adults play multiple roles and stand out: Stephen Spinella gives the best performance of his career since Angels in America. Christine Estabrook matches him with her own excellence. Finally, though, the young leads make this piece work. Jonathan Groff is charismatic as the rebellious Melchior, while Lea Michele is tremulously appealing as the touchingly innocent Wendla. John Gallagher, Jr. as the flailing Moritz, is heartbreaking.

If you originally saw Spring Awakening at the Atlantic Theater Company, be prepared to see a tighter, less frenetic, more emotionally focused show on Broadway. Be prepared, as well, for simple but spectacularly effective lighting design by Kevin Adams, and choreography by Bill T. Jones like none other you have seen before. If you're seeing the show for the first time, prepare yourself for Michael Mayer's masterpiece and one of the very few pop/rock musicals in Broadway history that manages to bridge the gap between the past of The Great White Way and its future.

Barbara and Scott Siegel