Talk about polishing the "Apple" until it shines.
In the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of "The Apple Tree," Kristin Chenoweth makes her own special brand of musical-comedy magic. The woman belongs in the theater (not in movies like "Deck the Halls" or her short-lived TV series "Kristin"), preferably in a musical that can show off her voice and delirious comic timing at the same time.
She gets just such an opportunity in this odd, uneven entertainment, actually three one-act Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musicals based on short stories by Mark Twain, Frank R. Stockton and Jules Feiffer. The 1966 original ran for over a year, a showcase for the quirky talents of Barbara Harris. And Chenoweth played the lead in "The Apple Tree" two years ago in a production at "Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert" If anything, she has gotten better.
This version, which opened Thursday at Studio 54, expands on the bare-bones "Encores!" version and recasts Chenoweth's co-stars. Her new leading men are Brian d'Arcy James and Marc Kudisch.
"The Apple Tree" is a musical about temptation, a situation most obvious in the evening's curtain raiser, Twain's "The Diary of Adam and Eve." Chenoweth, of course, is Eve; James is Adam and Kudisch a most debonair snake.
The key to Chenoweth's vibrant stage persona is her impish confidence. She is a personality, a unique performer who would have been right at home appearing in musical comedies of the 1920s and 1930s. Imagine if George and Ira Gershwin, or Rodgers and Hart had written a show or two for her. Here, director Gary Griffin, who also directed the "Encores!" presentation, wisely allows his leading lady to be front and center for most of the evening.
Chenoweth knows where the laughs are and goes right for them in all three pieces. Her Eve is cheerfully all-knowing, a hilarious contrast to James' obtuse, if good-natured Adam. She portrays a spoiled princess in Stockton's "The Lady or the Tiger?" It's a chance for her to engage in high camp and low comedy. And in Feiffer’s "Passionella," the actress is a forlorn chimney sweep suddenly transformed into a blonde bombshell of a movie star not unlike Marilyn Monroe. She goes from sweetness to sexy in warp speed.
Bock and Harnick, who wrote such musicals as "Fiddler on the Roof," "Fiorello!" and "She Loves Me," are craftsmen of the old school. Even with a show that is not of first rank (and "The Apple Tree" belongs in their second tier), Harnick's lyrics are never less than intelligent. They often are warmhearted and witty, while Bock's music, particularly in the first piece, is affecting without being overly sentimental.
"Adam and Eve" also contains the show's best song, 'What Makes Me Love Him." It's a number that Chenoweth delivers with enormous affection, singing in a simple, direct style that never descends to maudlin.
The songwriting team, with additional material from Jerome Coopersmith, also are credited with the book, whose quality varies greatly from story to story to story. If "Adam and Eve" is the most carefully thought-out piece (it borders on whimsy without getting too sticky), "The Lady or the Tiger?" has a strangely abrupt ending and "Passionella" is the most dated, a mid-1960s variation on "Cinderella," loaded down with beatnik hipness and an Elvis Presley-like hero gamely played by James.
The production designs are still minimal. "Adam and Eve," for example, is performed on a nearly bare playing area. And the chorus lineup is exceptionally skimpy, only four guys and four girls. But don't worry. Kristin Chenoweth can fill the stage all by herself.
"The Apple Tree" opened on Broadway in 1966 and it was slender stuff even then: three cartoonish skits plus a sunny score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. It ran 463 performances, largely due to the appeal of its stars, Barbara Harris (she won a Tony), Alan Alda and Larry Blyden, who could sing and sell silly. It also had Mike Nichols, a director who knows comedy.
The Roundabout Theatre Company's production of the show, which opened last night at Studio 54, has the star power, that's for sure. It is led by pint-sized powerhouse Kristin Chenoweth, the ideal leading lady for a show built for a knockout comic diva. Her co-stars are two seasoned pros, Brian d'Arcy James and Marc Kudisch.
What's missing from the Roundabout revival, as directed by Gary Griffin ("The Color Purple"), who based this version on his 2005 Encores! staging (also starring Chenoweth), is light-footedness. Timing is everything in comedy. Griffin's production is pleasant, but it plods. Ensemble dance numbers and a stripped-back design (the less said about this the better) fail to add excitement.
The show is based on love stories by Mark Twain, Frank R. Stockton and Jules Feiffer. Act I is "The Diary of Adam and Eve," about the First Couple in Eden. After intermission, "The Lady or the Tiger?" leaps to a "semibarbaric kingdom a long time ago." "Passionella" is a fable about Ella, a 1960s chimney sweep who yearns to be a film goddess. Although the score never hits the heights of Bock and Harnick classics like "Fiddler on the Roof," the songs are breezy and charming and have range. Eve's tender "What Makes Me Love Him" and Ella's goofy "Oh, To Be a Movie Star" are radiant.
We've come to expect that from Chenoweth. She is an old-school Broadway star who can sing, dance, act and is funny, all in a perky blond package. It is a special treat to have her onstage amping up the adorable and filling out a glamour-girl gown while pitching her warm and lustrous voice to the rafters.
D'Arcy James fills the romantic roles nicely. Kudisch is surprisingly good as a Snake (he's got cobra-like body lingo down) and as a dapper fairy godmother.
But the trio's efforts to make the most of the thin material are ultimately undermined by the sluggish pacing. "The Apple Tree" has never been revived on Broadway until now. One wishes for a crisper comeback.
Let’s hear it for Kristin Chenoweth - and we'll be hearing it on all sides this morning - for at Studio 54 last night she opened, and all but exploded, in the Roundabout Theatre Company's "The Apple Tree."
First time 'round on Broadway in 1966, the Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical was a vehicle for Barbara Harris, then Broadway's darling.
And so it is now for today's darling, Chenoweth - an undeniably effective vehicle, but, then, so is an express bus.
This vehicle had been patched together by the same flying-high team that only two years earlier had devised their masterpiece, "Fiddler on the Roof."
But while "Fiddler" had a great story, "The Apple Tree" did not. Though the original production ran for more than a year, it still lost money.
What Bock (music) and Harnick (lyrics) came up with was what Italian opera would call a "trittico." It was for Broadway a virtually unknown concept (and has remained that way) of three one-act musicals, based on stories by Mark Twain ("The Diary of Adam and Eve"), Frank R. Stockton ("The Lady or the Tiger?") and Jules Feiffer ("Passionella”).
Unfortunately, the conception never delivered. Bock and Harnick imagined their three one-acters were linked with a theme of man, woman and temptation. Maybe.
What they are really linked with is the unbearable lightness of being cute. It's an evening that runs with cuteness like an abattoir with blood.
All three pieces provide a sugar overload capable of bringing the sensitive close to screaming and making even the undersensitive queasy.
The first segment, "The Diary of Adam and Eve," sets the tone, with the father and mother of us all naming all the names and prescribing all the gender stereotypes, while falling - with help from Snake - from pristine grace.
"The Lady or the Tiger?" has a jealous Chenoweth wielding a recalcitrant bullwhip, deciding whether her lover, forced to choose between those two fateful doors - one hiding death, the other a dame - would be "better dead than wed" to someone else. (We never do know for sure.)
The final segment, "Passionella," is Felffer's charming Hollywood take on Cinderella, transforming a poor little chimney sweep into a Monroe look-alike who falls in love with a Brit rocker - a Prince Uncharming - who boasts a Lennon-style Queen's English.
Director Gary Griffin's neat staging elaborates only slightly on his earlier, austere production for City Center's "Encores!" series a year ago, in which Chenoweth also glittered. Now, however, the orchestra is split stereophonically between the theater's boxes.
No doubt it's hoped that, as with the record-breaking Encores! version of "Chicago," a new golden apple will not fall far from the tree.
It doesn't - but it's anything but pure gold.
Luckily, the performances are. Chenoweth at times seems a cleverly calculated amalgam of Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Anna Netrebko - but at glossy heart she's all Chenoweth, a Broadway legend in the making and wondrous to behold.
Nor are her two terrific co-stars slouches, either. Both kept busy making wit out of corn.
Brian d'Arcy James can even match Chenoweth in timing and comic grimace, though he's hardly helped, as Adam, by having an uncredited, unmistakable voice-over God from Alan Alda, who played James' roles back in 1966.
As Snake, Balladeer and Narrator, Marc Kudisch provides a fiendishly subtle triple threat.
Nevertheless, this "Apple Tree" still has more bark than bite.
Simba, Tarzan, Beauty, Beast: sorry, kids, but you’re not even in the running. The most winning performance by an animated cartoon in a Broadway musical is not to be found among the rows of dancing cyborgs in Disney productions. Look instead to the stage of Studio 54, where the virtues of Betty Boop, Jessica Rabbit and Blondie (wife of Dagwood, not the pop group) have been blended into one small, blindingly radiant package that goes by the name of Kristin Chenoweth.
In the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of “The Apple Tree,” which opened last night, Ms. Chenoweth, who is not quite 5 feet, is giving Imax-screen-sized life to three curvaceous doodles who by rights shouldn’t be any larger than creatures confined to the frames of the Sunday funnies.
Nor should her characters — who embody the eternal female essence through the centuries, starting with Eve and ending with a Jayne Mansfield-like love goddess — seem as fresh as Ms. Chenoweth makes them. Written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, “The Apple Tree” must have felt at least a tad moldy even when it first opened in 1966. And to be honest, Gary Griffin’s revival doesn’t manage to polish off all the dust that has since gathered on the show.
Though tuneful and sweet-tempered, this slender series of comic sketches about those silly but overpowering creatures called women was already looking faded in the 1960s, when writers like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were finding and raising their voices as feminists. But the original “Apple Tree” had the irresistible force of its star, Barbara Harris, on its side.
Ms. Harris, who won a Tony for her performance in “The Apple Tree,” vanished from Broadway shortly afterward, leaving behind her a misty memory of musical-comedy perfection that most actresses would wisely choose not to disturb.
Ms. Chenoweth — a Tony-winning, classically trained soprano with the feral comic instincts of Lucille Ball — is fearless and, when need be, shameless. She uses every theatrical weapon in her lavishly stocked arsenal to make “The Apple Tree” her own. And with splendid support from Brian d’Arcy James and Marc Kudisch as the men in her characters’ lives, she emerges as a mighty conqueror.
Are the vitality, craftsmanship and musical chops of Ms. Chenoweth and her co-stars enough to turn a rusty time capsule into a transporting time machine? The answer is an unqualified yes only in the first act, based on Mark Twain’s “Diary of Adam and Eve.” In the second act — which consists of campy variations on the old “Lady or the Tiger?” teaser of a story and Jules Feiffer’s account of a chimney sweep transformed into a movie star — “The Apple Tree” starts to look pretty bare.
The show’s hoariness was less noticeable when Ms. Chenoweth appeared last year in a concert version of “The Apple Tree” in the Encores! series at City Center, also directed by Mr. Griffin. The minimal staging, combined with the richness of Ms. Chenoweth’s performance and that of the onstage orchestra, allowed audience members to imagine that the show was fuller than it is.
The Roundabout version, designed by John Lee Beatty (sets) and Jess Goldstein (costumes), falls awkwardly between a bare-bones presentation and a full-dress production. This works just fine for the Adam and Eve sequence, conceived in the naked-stage tradition of “Our Town.”
And whatever your feelings about the portrayal of the original man and woman as prototypes for a race of silent, dim he-creatures and chatty, nagging she-creatures, it’s almost impossible not to be seduced by the jokes, songs and sentimentality as rendered by Ms. Chenoweth (as Eve), Mr. d’Arcy James (as Adam) and Mr. Kudisch (as the snake). All three of the principals have angelic voices, which give luster to the show’s most charming songs.
The second act is steeped in a makeshift glitz that brings to mind 1960s television variety revues (right down to Andy Blankenbuehler’s cheesecake choreography). This in turn makes you more conscious than you should be of how closely the latter part of the “Apple Tree” resembles a middling segment from an old “Carol Burnett Show.”
With orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick and musical direction and vocal arrangements by Rob Fisher, both peerless talents, the sound of the show stays at tree-top level, though. So do the central performances.
Mr. d’Arcy James brings a robust wit that is mercifully free of archness to his varied incarnations of male stolidity. (His roles were originated by Alan Alda, who makes an aural cameo here as the voice of God.) And Mr. Kudisch, who becomes two very different but equally droll narrators in the second act, has a canny grasp of the styles he is sending up.
As for Ms. Chenoweth — a bona fide Broadway star (“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “Wicked”) who works regularly in film (“The Pink Panther”) and television (“The West Wing”) — she consistently turns canapé-scale jokes and songs into banquets. Her compact hourglass body turns out to be as flexible and resonant an instrument as her voice, which is saying something.
Her transformation from the Chaplinesque Ella the Chimney Sweep into the undulating movie star Passionella is her most obviously virtuosic achievement here. But the peppy stride with which she endows Eve, a combination of take-charge bustle and the ecstatic energy of a newborn human, is even more memorable. It should also be noted that Ms. Chenoweth makes inspired comic use of props as varied as a bullwhip and a pickerel.
In her first moment on stage, as Eve wakens into being, Ms. Chenoweth sleepily grabs the air, as if hugging a phantom lover. What Eve is really trying to embrace, it develops, is the whole world. For the duration of “The Apple Tree,” the whole world — or at least the entire audience at Studio 54, which is all the world that counts for two hours — is delighted to return the embrace.
Perhaps the only reason to revive "The Apple Tree" is to showcase a couple or three shiny-bright apples.
If so, the Roundabout Theatre Company has what it needs in Kristin Chenoweth, Brian d'Arcy James and Marc Kudisch - who are sweet and amused with one another and do everything but bake themselves into a pie to justify the extremely minor new production dwarfed by the oversized environs of Studio 54.
But there is an expired sell-by date to this limited run - an inescapable sense that the sunny 1966 trifle by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick got stuck into this big dark theater as filler between more interesting work.
"The Apple Tree," made up of three modest musical play lets, was produced for a weekend last year as part of City Center's semi-staged "Encores!" series at City Center. Unlike "Chicago" and "Wonderful Town," "Encores!" shows that cried out to be transferred intact to Broadway, this feels like an underproduced road show that only had to travel a few blocks.
As at City Center, the draw is Chenoweth - the reigning Kewpie doll with her teeny comic body and big musical notes. For those with no limits to their Chenoweth appetite, this show offers the chance to watch a real old-style Broadway star be tirelessly cute as four different characters - from Eve in Paradise to a spoiled princess in an ancient barbaric kingdom to a movie-queen variation of Cinderella in the '60s.
Director Gary Griffin, who staged the "Encores!" production (and never got enough credit for "The Color Purple"), delivers the vehicle on what appears to be the cheap. John Lee Beatty's set amounts to the "Encores!" proscenium with a tree embossed on a burlap curtain and just enough props to establish, sweetly, the contrasting situations.
In the most amusing section, "The Diary of Adam and Eve," inspired by Mark Twain, we find Adam (d'Arcy James) being awakened by the voice of God - that is, the voice of Alan Aida, who co-starred with Barbara Harris in Mike Nichols' original production. Adam, asleep in what looks like white tennis clothes (by Jess Goldstein), reluctantly gets up to start naming things on Earth. He gets a pain in his rib and out rolls Eve, alert and chatty and able to name everything - for example, a parrot because "it looks like a parrot."
He tells bad jokes and fears commitment. She gets too close and likes to decorate. Kudisch, who can be adorable and creepy in the same instant, portrays their conspiratorial snake as if there were an echo chamber behind his nose.
Bock and Harnick - far better known as the team who created "Fiddler on the Roof" and "She Loves Me" - wrote larky songs here that make tough vocal demands appear sweet and casual. Rob Fisher, musical master behind the early days of "Encores!" conducts an antiphonal orchestra that plays from balcony box seats on either side of the stage.
In "The Lady or the Tiger" (based on Frank R. Stockton's story), they spoof the fable with d'Arcy James as the conquering hero and Chenoweth as the royal brat. In "Passionella" (story by Jules Feiffer), she plays an unemployed chimney sweep who gets her wish and becomes a star who looks like Marilyn Monroe in a slinky mermaid-tailed gown.
Chenoweth, who has a solo concert at the Metropolitan Opera in January and her legitimate Met debut in 2010 in "The Ghosts of Versailles," can switch vocal registers as effortlessly as she tosses comic riffs. With her tiny-girl steps and limbs that look as if a child had drawn them, she has her very own cartoon sexuality - if not Jessica Rabbit, then surely Jessica Bunny-Rabbit.
Kristin Chenoweth's biggest problem is that she was born late.
A half-century ago, a beautiful woman with a gleaming soprano and a flair for comedy was prized in musical theater. Each Broadway season brought a new showcase for her gifts, as then-fledgling performers such as Julie Andrews and Barbara Cook could testify.
Contemporary musicals, with their soft-rock-flavored scores and coarse camp, offer fewer settings for such elegant jewels. A girl might luck into a canny vehicle, as Chenoweth did a few years back with Wicked; otherwise, she can only hope that the right revival comes along.
Which brings us to the Roundabout Theatre Company's The Apple Tree (*** out of four), from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the team behind Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me. A trio of mini-musicals adapted from stories by Mark Twain, Jules Feiffer and Frank R. Stockton, Apple enjoyed a brief run in the 1960s.
This fresh Apple, now at Studio 54, has ample charm to sustain it for two hours. That's not to say it's as ripe for Chenoweth's talents as the New York Philharmonic's staging of Candide. Though she expertly handles Bock's tunes, they don't accommodate her silvery vocal tone and multi-octave range the way Leonard Bernstein's did — or show off her supple middle register as fetchingly as some songs that Stephen Schwartz penned for Wicked.
And while the roles that Chenoweth assumes seem tailored to suit her adorable presence, the skits are inconsistent. "The Diary of Adam and Eve" is the first and the best, casting her as the world's deceptively dizzy first woman opposite an endearing Brian d'Arcy James. Marc Kudisch, Chenoweth's former flame offstage, adds devilish humor as the snake who worms his way into Eden.
The three dynamic young performers are underserved in other sequences, in which Chenoweth plays a tempestuous princess and a chimney sweep transformed into a Marilyn Monroe-like screen idol. Still, they tackle their goofy characters with verve, putting a new spin on the cliché that tells us there are no small roles, only small actors.
Clearly, even at 4-foot-11, Chenoweth remains a force to be reckoned with.
As star vehicles go, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's "The Apple Tree" is a female musical comedy performer's dream. The 1966 tuner snagged a Tony for original lead Barbara Harris and provides a snug showcase for the effervescent vocal and comic gifts of Kristin Chenoweth in her welcome return to Broadway. But while the triptych of musical vignettes was charming in its semi-staged Encores! presentation last year, Roundabout's decision to upgrade to Broadway in a slapped-together production at Studio 54 only exposes the flimsy material's limitations.
There's still lots to enjoy here, but with a top ticket north of $100, sweet and pleasant doesn't quite cut it. Unlike other revivals sparked by Encores! airings such as "Chicago," "Wonderful Town" and "The Pajama Game," this insubstantial musical barely withstands a full-scale staging in a large house. A quaint relic of the era of variety-show sketch comedy, it establishes a tenuous link between the three stories of Man, Woman and the Devil. Downsizing from the full orchestra onstage at Encores! to 15 musicians and a smaller ensemble also adds to the generally anemic quality.
Taken together, Bock and Harnick's songs have little to rival their earlier collaborations on "Fiddler on the Roof," "She Loves Me" or "Fiorello!" Nonetheless, there's a versatility and command of tone and theme on display that identify the composer-lyricist team as master craftsmen.
The numbers extend in range to reflect the style and subject matter of each mini-musical, based on stories by Mark Twain, Frank R. Stockton and Jules Feiffer. The dawn of humankind and chartering of the male-female dynamic is echoed in soft, dewy ballads and wry comic songs in "The Diary of Adam and Eve." Brassy fanfares usher in the over-the-top sword-and-sandal spoof of "The Lady or the Tiger?," and showbiz pizzazz flavors the satirical dream of stardom in "Passionella: A Romance of the '60s."
While the sentimental opening tale offers the show's prettiest songs and most nuanced treatment, it becomes the weakest part here due largely to the austere staging choices made by director Gary Griffin and designer John Lee Beatty. The gentle comedy of the exploratory interaction between self-reliant Adam (Brian d'Arcy James) and bossy nester Eve (Chenoweth) too often seems dwarfed on the vast empty stage, littered with stepladders and wooden boards in a bare-bones style reminiscent of "The Fantasticks."
Chenoweth has the timing and physical comedy skills of a classic screwball star like Carole Lombard, and her airy, effortless soprano makes enchanting work of songs such as "Here in Eden," "Feelings," "What Makes Me Love Him" and the daffy lullaby "Go to Sleep Whatever You Are." But even with her delectable turn, the material is too thin to support an entire act.
James' regular-guy Adam has moments but lacks warmth. When he gets to show some heart in "Eve," he's shortchanged by the scene-stealing (if admittedly hilarious) shtick of Chenoweth as she bustles back and forth across the stage like a biblical Martha Stewart on a decor mission. (James' roles in the show were played in Mike Nichols' original production by Alan Alda, heard here as the voice of God.)
For the second story, Jess Goldstein's vibrant costumes and the casbah-via-Vegas setting for the ancient Middle Eastern kingdom provide slightly more lavish eye candy. Chenoweth plays the lusty princess torn between sacrificing her soldier lover (James) to a savage beast or another woman. Her finest moment here is vamping through "I've Got What You Want" while perilously cracking a whip that threatens to topple her headgear.
Closing seg has Chenoweth as chimney sweep Ella, fantasizing about the glamorous life. A touch of magic via her TV set gives the soot-stained frump a Jayne Mansfield makeover, hourglass curves and instant fame -- with conditions. The transformation is deftly mirrored in Chenoweth's vocals, from tone-deaf forlornness in "Oh, to Be a Movie Star" to trilling self-adulation in "Gorgeous," the show's funniest number. That song also provides a virtuosic opportunity for the diva to hit a high D -- famously recorded by another singer and played as a joke by Harris in the original production.
His hair teased inexplicably into '80s-vintage Duran Duran mode in "Tiger" and into an inflated rockabilly quiff as the motorcycle-riding beatnik celebrity who sets Passionella straight, James sings smoothly and displays fine comic chops, but he's second fiddle all the way.
Same goes for Marc Kudisch -- a dependable class act but underutilized here. He plays the satanic Snake in "Adam and Eve," complete with serpentine head moves; a twangy folk balladeer in "Tiger"; and a droll narrator in "Passionella."
The show doesn't exactly zip along under Griffin's workmanlike direction, but he knows the engine here is the pint-sized star with the radiant smile, and he gives her plenty of room to purr.
It's hard to imagine material that could cater more amusingly to the vanity and fearsome confidence of Chenoweth's stage persona -- admiring her form as original woman Eve ("Whatever I am, I'm certainly a beautiful one"), carried aloft by slaves as Princess Barbara ("Make way! Her goddessness!") or gushing over her sudden attributes as Passionella ("I am such a divine me! Every studio will sign me!"). There's no call for humility here and no confusion as to the single motivating element behind this production.
Here's hoping that next time Chenoweth takes a Broadway breather from doing movies and TV, it will be in a more rewarding musical.