Part of the problem is the lack of innovation in Ray Roderick’s staging in this show which calls out for invention and clever handling of sets and props. Devin Vogel’s colorless stage design (making use mainly of a ladder in the first and third stories) and Hope Salvan’s equally colorless costumes for most of the show (pale grey and blue tee-shirts and jeans for the first one-act) do not help bring any atmosphere to the three separate stories which span the time scheme from Biblical days up to the present. All three stories are narrated or introduced by The Balladeer who also plays the Snake in the first story. While such songs as the catchy “Forbidden Fruit,” the lovely “What Makes Me Love Him?,” the sultry “I’ve Got What You Want,” and the folk-rock ballad, “You Are Not Real” still impress, the musical staging is lacking in showmanship and pizzazz.
The first part of the evening is “The Diary of Adam and Eve” based on the story by Mark Twain in which Adam keeps a journal of his days in Eden. When Eve arrives, it appears that she is much more clever that he and they argue a great deal as she renames his “swimmers,” “growler” and “hoppers.” The snake convinces her that it is “humor” that is the forbidden fruit, not the apple. After they are kicked out of Eden, they grow closer, having their first two children who Adam thinks are fish as they surround themselves with water every chance they get. Eventually they grow old together and Eve worries about dying first as Adam is so much stronger than she is. Adam eventually realizes that wherever Eve was he was in Eden.
Bock and Harnick’s “The Diary of Adam and Eve” is really a one-gimmick plot as are the adaptations of all three stories, and the jokes now seem 100 years old. Muscular, well-built Garen McRoberts has a boyish charm but does not seem to grow or change much in the course of the story as Adam grows older. Savannah Frazier’s low-key performance as Eve is sweet but the show needs more to make it work. As the Balladeer, the voice of God and the Snake, Matthew LaBanca in an underwritten role makes a good deal out of his one song, but mainly fades into the background. The five person ensemble played by Marc de la Concha, Elizabeth Flanagan, Alia Hodge and Evan Maltby and Wesley Tunison play all the animals in Eden wearing assorted shawls and scarf (in pale colors) but aren’t given much movement to make their roles stand out.
The second musical is based on Frank R. Stockton’s famous short story, “The Lady or the Tiger?” which has been somewhat trimmed in the Musicals Tonight! version. In a semi-barbaric kingdom, (a Balladeer with a guitar tells us,) trials are conducted by putting the prisoner in an arena with two doors. Behind one door is a beautiful woman. If he chooses that door he must marry the woman. Behind the other is a hungry tiger. However, if he chooses the door with the tiger, it is assumed that he is guilty and the tiger is allowed to eat him. On this particular day, Captain Sanjar returns from a long victorious battle. He and Princess Barbara (pronounced with the accent on the second syllable) are in love but it is forbidden for a commoner to romance a member of the royal family. When King Arik catches them, he sentences Sanjar to a trial. The Princess attempts to discover behind which door is the lady and which is the tiger. However when it turns out that the beautiful slave girl who loves Sanjar is to stand behind the door, what signal does the Princess give her lover?
Salvan’s costumes are more effective here for but they still don’t suggest an ancient kingdom. As Princess Barbara, Frazier does a mean belly dance to “I’ve Got What You Want” in a pink and silver two piece costume and McRoberts, displaying his impressive chest, shirtless in an embroidered vest, and singing in his rich baritone voice here rather than his tenor which he used as Adam, swaggers with virility but the show seems awfully thin while the supporting cast is both not well used or costumed for the royal pageantry. LaBanca as both Narrator and Balladeer accompanies himself on the guitar (one of several instruments he plays in the course of the show) while he sings “I’ll Tell You a Truth,” but other than that he isn’t given much to do.
The third story, Jules Feiffer’s “Passionella” is an updated variation of Cinderella. Ella is an unhappy chimney sweep who dreams of being a movie star. One night after work, she comes home to find that her television isn’t working. Her Friendly Neighborhood Godmother appears on the screen and grants her most cherished wish. However, she can only be gorgeous Passionella from the seven o’clock news until the end of the Late Late show. She is immediately signed to a lifetime contract and becomes an overnight sensation. However, she has it all – except for love so that she is still unhappy. She meets and falls for Flip, a famous hippie folk-rock singer who rejects her as he tells her “You Are Not Real.” Passionella insists on playing a chimney sweep in her next movie and wins the Academy Award. When Flip presents her with her Oscar, he realizes he loves her and proposes. They return home and lose track of time and suddenly it is the witching hour. It turns out that Flip has a secret also – and they live happily ever after.
Aside from the fact that the plot is a hoary old chestnut, the songs in this part are rather obvious. The glamorous world of Hollywood is not very well portrayed by the production. However, Frazier again shows her versatility transforming from the plain Ella to the glamorous Passionella though Salvan misses her opportunities with the costumes which don’t help much. McRoberts isn’t seen much nearly until the end where he does a fine parody of the celebrity pop singer. LaBanca has more to do here in such roles as the narrator, the producer and the voice of her Fairy Godmother.
For The Apple Tree to work it needs clever staging, inventive sets, colorful costumes, and a large cast playing all the minor roles as the material is mainly a scenario for cast and production team to fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, the Musicals Tonight! revival is weak in all four departments. When the cast is allowed to play over-the-top, the show works. When they have been directed to be low-key, the material seems emaciated and tired. A stronger production would have given the show the needed boost.
The Apple Tree (October 3 – 15, 2017)
The Lion Theatre, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com
Running time: one hour and 20 minutes without an intermission