In October 1966, when The Apple Tree first opened on Broadway, Walter Kerr wrote in The New York Times that as an evening's entertainment, it "starts high and then scoots downward on a pretty steep slope." But, Kerr continued, its star, Barbara Harris, is "exquisite, appetizing, alarming, seductive" and "irresistible."
Now, 40 years later, the first Broadway revival of The Apple Tree has opened, at the Roundabout Theater Company's Studio 54, and, well, it starts high and then scoots downward on a pretty steep slope. And its star, Kristin Chenoweth is exquisite, appetizing, alarming, seductive and irresistible. She is a master of comedy. And, oh yes, she also has a pretty great voice.
The Apple Tree was created by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick two years after their megahit Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway. But in truth it is no Fiddler- nor is it even close to the same class as their other musicals, be it She Loves Me, Fiorello! , The Rothschilds or even Tenderloin. Its three acts are three separate musicals, the first based on Mark Twain's The Diary of Adam and Eve, the second on the Frank R. Stockton short story The Lady or the Tiger? and the third on Jules Feiffer's Passionella. The three are linked by a theme, albeit a slender and obvious one: the nature of love.
The first part, with Chenoweth as a glowing, sweet and quirky Eve, exudes wit and charm. Even if the one-act musical is in the end slight and insubstantial, Chenoweth's Eve is always worth watching and listening to, for her talent and her voice, at turns operatic and comic. As Eve/Chenoweth describes herself early on, before she knows she is a woman, "Whatever I am, I'm certainly a beautiful one."
But then comes part two, The Lady or the Tiger?, with Chenoweth as a princess forced by her father the king to decide whether to feed her true love, Captain Sanjar, to a tiger or allow him to marry another woman. The songs and the choreography here, abetted by a boring chorus, descend to the obvious, witless and at times embarrassing. And as to the princess's choice, who cares?
Things get even worse in part three, Feiffer's Passionella, a tale of the 60's in which a fairy godmother arrives in Ella the Chimney Sweep's television set and turns her into Passionella, a movie star, who encounters a 60's version of Prince Charming. Chenoweth shows her stuff again, comic and appealing (even if her blonde wig and tight-fitting gold-sequined dress as Passionella make her look like a female impersonator). But the story, based on a Feiffer cartoon, has the dimensionality of a comic strip.
The sets are limited and tacky - some wooden ladders and fake flowers in Eden, little more in the other two scenes - making it clear that the Roundabout decided to this production on the cheap. Chenoweth's co-stars - Brian d'Arcy James as Adam, Captain Sanjar and Flip, the Prince Charming, and Marc Kudisch, Chenoweth's former fiancée, as the Snake, a balladeer and a narrator - are both highly talented, but their roles give them little chance to show their abilities.<