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Good things do not come in threes after all. In an autumn season that has seen two musicals (Grey Gardens, Spring Awakening) transfer successfully to Broadway from modest beginnings, The Apple Tree demonstrates that some high-risk curios deserve but brief runs.
Originally done on Broadway in 1966, in a production starring Barbara Harris and Alan Alda and directed by Mike Nichols, The Apple Tree was presented two springs ago by the Encores series in a bare-bones incarnation starring Kristin Chenoweth. A collection of three tales involving men, women and temptation, with the first involving the Garden of Eden, the second a barbaric fairytale kingdom, and the third a chimney sweep turned Marilyn Monroe-like siren, the musical charmed critics who had just endured a rash of punishingly bad late-Tony -time openings.
The Encores engagement had reviewers reaching for their superlatives as readily as Chenoweth, as Eve in the evening’s first playlet, reaches for the forbidden fruit. By giving Apple a full-scale production at Studio 54, however, the Roundabout is implying that the show, written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, is at least moderately substantial.
But it is sliver-thin. Its battle-of-the-sexes humour has not aged particularly well, and its songs, which range from sweet lullabies to full-toot Broadway jazz, are pleasant yet utterly forgettable.
And Chenoweth? As with all critics’ darlings eventually, a backlash is brewing. Detractors say she proves that perkiness should come only in strictly measured doses, or that her way of milking laughs is curdling into shtick. I agree that, since her end-of-run performances in Wicked, she is skirting shamelessness. But whatever the limits of her emotional range, the singing voice is beautifully expressive, from the clear ping of her high notes to the vampy growl of her lows.
Brian d’Arcy James and Marc Kudisch supply charming leading-man support, and Gary Griffin’s direction is fine, although the undernourished physical production may make some theatregoers feel they have not quite got their money’s worth.
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