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The Golden Apple

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere - May 10, 2017

Photo by Joan Marcus

The current, wish-come-true, New York City Center Encores! presentation of The Golden Apple will have seven performances over a five-day period. That figure seems ironically appropriate because, in the unlikely event that a commercial production of this show were to open on Broadway today, it probably wouldn't last more than a week. Here we have an American musical adaptation of The Odyssey and The Iliad, Homer's epic poems of the Trojan War, set in the State of Washington between the years 1900 and 1910 (odysseys tend to take a while), with a through-sung score by Jerome Moross and John Latouche that runs the gamut from soaring operatic flights to various forms of '50s pop, jazz, blues, ragtime, brilliantly witty comedy numbers, and a fair amount of clever pastiche, including a tribute to the legendary vaudeville team of Gallagher and Shean.

Even in 1954, The Golden Apple had a rough go of it, managing only 125 performances at the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon) following a critically acclaimed 48-performance Off-Broadway run at the Phoenix Theatre (now the Village East Cinema). Potential ticket buyers may have been intimidated by the show's source material, their trepidation no doubt exacerbated by the fact that the musical's creators chose to retain the names of the major characters from Homer's works even while shifting the time and place of the story. Then, too, part of problem may have been that audiences of the day were simply not used to through-sung musicals; by that point, even Porgy and Bess had become familiar to the public at large as an operatic musical with spoken rather than sung dialogue.

Yes, this seems to have been a case of "We know people will love the show if we can get them in the door, but how the hell do we do that?" All those folks who stayed away might have assumed that the The Golden Apple would be too highbrow and heavy to provide much entertainment value. But if that's what they assumed, they couldn't have been more wrong. While the show certainly has its serious, deeply moving sections, most of them involving the relationship of the faithful Penelope and the wandering Ulysses, overall it's notable for the creators' wonderfully light touch, and there's general agreement that the Moross/Latouche score is among the very best ever created for a flop Broadway musical. (Two others are Candide, for which Latouche contributed some lyrics, and Merrily We Roll Along. I'll leave it to the reader to agree or not, and to rank these three in order of excellence.)

The quality and range of the music in The Golden Apple is astounding, the lyrics true genius. Helen's "Lazy Afternoon," a languorous "come hither" ballad originally sung to perfection by Kaye Ballard, was the one pop hit to come out of the show. But the rest of the numbers and musical scenes, though virtually unknown to the public at large, are no less great, each in its own style. The two big Penelope/Ulysses duets, "It's the Coming Home Together" (sung early on) and "We've Just Begun" (the finale), are especially ravishing.

Latouche's contribution to The Golden Apple has always been held in such high esteem that his "Written by" credit appears before the "Music composed by" credit for Moross—an unusual billing. All of Latouche's work here is stellar, never more so than in the comedy songs. The Heroes' number "Helen is Always Willing" features such delicious quatrains as "You ask some girls on the hayride / And some girls say they may ride / And some girls flatly tell you 'No,' / But Helen says, ‘Let's go!'" The sublimely silly "Goona-Goona" gives us: "Those hula dancing mamas / Are really yama yamas / They can shake and they can shimmy / Till they charm wild cobras / Also, fellows, they wear no bras." And here's my favorite part of the peppy "Doomed, Doomed, Doomed," sung by a lady scientist and chorus: "The polar cap is slowly expanding / In a million years we'll freeze to death I guess / If the Ice Age hasn't floored us, there's a planet heading toward us / When it hits, we'll be an interstellar mess." (Well, some of the details of that last one turned out to be a bit off, but the larger black-comic point still holds.)

The original Broadway cast album of The Golden Apple, recorded in the pre-stereo era, is a major disappointment in that only a relatively small percentage of the score was preserved due to the time limitations of a single vinyl LP. Also, in an attempt to tie the severely edited numbers together for the sake of the listener, Latouche wrote some rhyming narration that comes off as rather twee. Two years ago, PS Classics gave us a gratifyingly full, two-CD recording of a live performance of the show by the Lyric Stage company in Irving Texas. But from May 10 through 14, 2017 if you want to enjoy the embarrassment of riches that Moross and Latouche willed to us, the best way to do so is to head over to City Center and get a ticket for the Encores! presentation, which must immediately be credited as one of the essential series' finest and most noteworthy achievements.

The show is cast from strength, beginning with the central couple and continuing through the featured roles and the ensemble, all of whom seem to have the talent for leads. Mikaela Bennett is a compelling Penelope with a gleaming, wide-ranging soprano voice that bears more than a passing resemblance to Audra McDonald's. (Yes, that's meant as a tremendous compliment.) Ryan Silverman, in addition to his virile, versatile, mellifluous bari-tenor and striking good looks, brings an engaging physicality to the role of Ulysses, who has the potential to come off as a bit of a stiff.

Judging by applause, the opening night audience's favorite number was "Lazy Afternoon," and I don't think that's just because it's the only song most people know. Thanks to a simmering, sensuous rendition of the song by Lindsay Mendez (Helen) and the breathtakingly lithe, sinuous, gorgeous dancing of Barton Cowperthwaite (Paris), not to mention the off-the-charts chemistry between these two, the sequence was hot enough to melt steel.

It's impossible to properly credit every deserving member of the very large company, but the standouts include Carrie Compere as Lovey Mars/The Siren, Ashley Brown as Mrs. Juniper/Madame Calypso, Jeff Blumenkrantz as Menelaus/Scylla, and Jason Kravits as Hector Charybdis. The 12 super-talents playing The Heroes are alternately stalwart, charming, rowdy, and hilariously dumb as boxes of hair. Even the 18 "Locals" are all well-chosen and give their all to the proceedings. Indeed, of the entire company, only N'Kenge as Mother Hare/Circe and Alli Mauzey as Miss Minerva Oliver/The Scientist disappoint somewhat with their less than completely clear delivery of Latouche's wonderful words.

The Golden Apple is a specialty item that can shatter if not expertly handled. Director Michael Berresse and choreographer Joshua Bergasse have given the show an energy and fluidity that were spectacularly evident even in the opening night performance of a production with a comparatively short rehearsal period. The Encores! orchestra sounds better than ever under music director/conductor Rob Berman, basking in the scintillating original orchestrations of Moross and Hershy Kay, and Dan Moses Schreier achieves one of the warmest, most natural sound designs I've ever heard at City Center (or elsewhere, for that matter).

Anyone who has regularly attended Encores! shows over the years will tell you that they have become more and more impressive in terms of production values, and The Golden Apple reaches new heights in that regard. There are a couple of beautifully painted drops and a few fun set pieces (including an inventive depiction of the balloon in which Paris arrives in town and in which he takes Helen away), plus fabulous early-20th-century costumes. Credit scenic designer Allen Moyer and costume consultant William Ivey Long for the above, and Ken Billington for so skillfully lighting it all.

Almost since Encores! began, musical theater mavens have been suggesting titles of lesser-known shows that are ripe for presentation in the series because they're doubtful prospects for commercial revival, despite their merits. This maven long ago came up with what I thought was the bright idea for "The Golden Season," which would have embraced The Golden Apple, Golden Boy, and Golden Rainbow. To date, the last of those three is the only one that has not yet been given the Encores! treatment, so let's please keep it on the wish list. But in the meantime: Thank you, thank you, thank you to artistic director Jack Viertel and everyone else involved for giving us a look at and listen to a superb presentation of an undersung masterpiece.

The Golden Apple
Through May 14
New York City Center's Mainstage, 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: