If any current musical theater performer can carry a show that is pleasant at its best and so what-ish at its worst, it’s Kristin Chenoweth (so winning in Wicked, on Broadway; so politically correct in The West Wing, on TV). The petite curvaceous, vivacious blonde, with a shimmering soprano voice and an incomparable gift for comedic performing, is giving the Roundabout Theater revival of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s 1966 The Apple Tree its needed shot in the arm. Undoubtedly buoyed by its warm reception last year as part of the Encore! series of semi-staged readings, the three-part (actually three separate short stories) musical, under Gary Griffin’s direction, is not, however, a likely candidate for an extended run. Despite the musical serving as a perfect showcase for Chenoweth, it is only fitfully amusing and it has been given a rather skimpy-looking production at Studio 54 Theater.
Certainly not in the same league with other Bock and Harnick collaborations ( Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, and Fiorello), The Apple Tree consists of three satiric parables about the male and female animal: The Diary of Adam and Eve, by Mark Twain; The Lady or the Tiger by Frank Stockton and Passionella: A Romance of the 60s by Jules Feiffer. In the first and best of the three, Chenoweth plays the romantic initiator and instinctive homemaker/decorator Eve to Brian d’ Arcy’s surly leave-me-alone Adam.
Although designer John Lee Beatty’s vision of Eden resembles little more than a stage still waiting for the scenery to arrive, it does offer space for Chenoweth to beguilingly underline every funny situation and to warmly warble the score’s best tunes, namely “What Makes Me Love Him,” and “Go to Sleep Wherever You Are.” As the virile nonplused Adam, James doesn’t attempt to match Chenoweth’s playfully over-the-top antics, nor does the always ingratiating Marc Kudisch, as the slivery seductive serpent of biblical fame.
In The Lady …Middle Eastern kingdom kitsch reigns re: Beatty’s glitzy setting, Jess Goldstein’s splashy hoochy-kooch costumes and Andy Blankenbuehler’s bump and jump choreography. Chenoweth is the by-passion-possessed princess who has to decide whether she should sacrifice her warrior lover (James) to the jaws of a tiger or to the arms of another woman. The best moment finds Chenoweth putting a torrid spin on “I’ve Got What You Want,” and yet not quite able to master the cracking of a whip. It’s pure silliness. In Passionella …, Chenoweth plays Ella, a lonely sooty chimney sweep, who is magically transformed by her fairy godfather (Kudisch, who also serves as the story’ s narrator), into a blonde sex pot of a movie star. She is destined to find true love, however, with a rock singer (James). Chenoweth’s talent for breaking through the sound barrier with her high notes is the highlight of this skit. Fans of Chenoweth will be delighted; others will find the triptych trying.
The Apple Tree (ends March 11, 2007)
Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street
For tickets ($36.25 – $11l.125) call 212 – 719 – 1300