The Apple Tree Book, music & lyrics by Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick. Additional book material by Jerome Coopersmith. Based on Stories by Mark Twain, Frank R. Stockton & Jules Feiffer. Directed by Gary Griffin. Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. Music direction & vocal arrangements by Rob Fisher. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Set design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Hair and wig design by Charles LaPointe.
Cast: Kristin Chenoweth, Brian d'Arcy James, Marc Kudisch, with Walter Charles, Meggie Cansler, Julie Connors, Sarah Jane Everman, Jennifer Taylor Farrell, Justin Keyes, Lorin Lotarro, Mike McGowan, Sean Palmer, Eric Santagata, Dennis Stowe.
The Bible's a bit vague on exactly when God created musical comedy, but whenever it was, chances are The Apple Tree is pretty much what He had in mind.
The 1966 Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical seldom (if ever) makes appearances on lists of the best or most-influential shows, and true, it doesn't make many innovations. But who needs groundbreaking when you've got granite-solid craft? Musical comedy can, in fact, be art, and if The Apple Tree isn't quite the theatrical equivalent of the Mona Lisa, it's up there. And, in Gary Griffin's new revival at Studio 54, this collection of three mini-musicals is more than just a solid triple-play: It's a grand-slam success.
This is, admittedly, not much of a surprise. Griffin directed the Encores! concert production of The Apple Tree in the spring of 2005, and even then it shone with an unusual radiance. What was revealed in Griffin's thrilling, no-nonsense mounting was that the show wasn't some deservedly forgotten mid-list title, but one possessing the energy and sharpness of the era's biggest hits, albeit one as much in need of an incomparable leading lady as Sweet Charity and Mame, which also opened in 1966. Kristin Chenoweth filled that requirement, providing everything needed for the show to explode in a conflagration of entertainment that made it one of the year's top musical highlights. With Chenoweth and Griffin still on board, it's one of 2006's as well.
Let's get it out of the way: Not everything is ideal. The evening's first act, "The Diary of Adam and Eve," based on a Mark Twain story, is so powerful that the two that follow it can never quite measure up. Jonathan Tunick has written new orchestrations that, while predictably expert, don't live up to Eddie Sauter's superb originals. And John Lee Beatty's set isn't much different stylistically from what was used at Encores!, and without the orchestra onstage (which is a welcome sight) things sometimes look a bit bare.
But these are ultimately small lapses that all but vanish in the light of everything that's so right. Griffin's clarity of vision ensures that, from the heartfelt minimalism of "Diary" through the brassy comedy of the Frank R. Stockton-inspired "The Lady or the Tiger?" and the whimsical, modern fairy tale "Passionella" (adapted from Jules Feiffer), we're always focused on the people, events, and music that matter most. This is not a show in which any one person, onstage or off, is allowed to overwhelm the proceedings.
Even so, at the center of it all is Chenoweth, doing hands-down the best work of her career. She brings a heavenly sexiness to the preternaturally innocent Eve that bestows upon her the matter-of-fact authority she needs to call the shots in the Garden of the Eden. Yet there's also an undercurrent of impish curiosity to Eve that, coupled with her childlike grasp of emotions, all but guarantees a volatile - if unendingly meaningful - relationship with Adam.
Whether as the newborn (if full-grown) Eve of the first week of the universe, or the wise woman who by the end of her days has really seen it all, Chenoweth convinces totally as she guides you from laughs to tears with her angelic voice and devilishly accurate comic timing. Not for even the briefest moment in "Diary" does Chenoweth draw upon her well-known mannerisms (squeaky, kewpie-doll voice, and so on) in creating Eve; she is the most adult, most subdued, and most complete character Chenoweth has ever created, and when she's singing her moving final number, "What Makes Me Love Him?", she's as good as you get in the New York theatre today.
In the second and third acts, her sultry Princess Barbára, who must choose between allowing her illicit lover to be mauled by a tiger or marry her fiercest rival, and chimney sweep Ella, who becomes the curvaceous movie star Passionella by night, are also beautifully judged. But those roles play to Chenoweth's strengths more than they test them, and thus seem less momentous achievements than familiar destinations. Chenoweth's singing, though, is spectacular throughout, and her back-to-back renditions of "Oh, to Be a Movie Star" for the sooty Ella and "Gorgeous" for the resplendent Passionella are the kind of moments musical theatre lovers live for.
There is, however, more to the show than Chenoweth. Neither of her costars, Brian d'Arcy James and Marc Kudisch, appeared in the Encores! production, but their contributions make an already unforgettable evening that much more special. Fine as Malcolm Gets and Michael Cerveris were last year, James and Kudisch bring even more pointed personality to their portrayals, making the show surrounding Chenoweth funnier, more balanced, and more exciting than it was before.
Take, for example, James in "Diary." He brings a darkly modern irritability to Adam perfectly in keeping with the territorial bravado one might expect of the First Man. (Forget classical accounts: This Adam would prefer a beer-and-football-filled Sunday, if only those things existed at the Beginning of Time.) But as Eve gradually insinuates herself into his life, the confusion and annoyance James displays at her constant presence morph so subtly into adoration and need that it's as though he's wrapping an entire lifetime of learning, love, and loss into 45 minutes. His turns as Barbára's warrior boyfriend and Passionella's beat poet-rock star Prince Charming couldn't be more different, yet are no less accomplished.
As for Kudisch, he so slithers through "Diary" as the nefarious Snake who convinces Eve to taste the forbidden apple that you might find his demented logic just as seductive as she does. He later becomes so likeable as the Balladeer who leads us through "Tiger" and as the narrator of "Passionella" that he seems an entirely different performer altogether, as unthinkable playing the serpentine Snake as puffed-chest stuffed shirts and borderline-demonic types he's played so brilliantly throughout his career. Never has he seemed so comfortable, so versatile, so light on his feet.
Leave it to a great production of a great musical to bring out the best in everyone. How astonishing that this Apple Tree blossoms not by being disemboweled of its basic theatrical essence by a visionary director who imposes himself on it, twists its feelings into unrecognizability, or forces all the actors to accompany themselves on instruments (though Kudisch briefly strums a guitar as the Balladeer). No, it triumphs by being itself and by allowing its stars to do what they made their names on. What a concept. And what a wonderful show.