Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s The Apple Tree, one of Broadway’s forgotten gems of the mid-60s, gets a small stage revival worth remembering in this charming, funny, tuneful, and sparklingly performed production by North Hollywood’s Crown City Theatre Company.

Bock and Harnick are of course best known for their oft-revived Fiddler On The Roof and She Loves Me. Like those better known musical treats, The Apple Tree benefits from Bock’s catchy, melodic tunes and Harnick’s clever, witty lyrics. (The songwriting duo also wrote The Apple Tree’s book, with additional material by Jerome Coopersmith.)  If The Apple Tree remains largely unremembered, it’s probably because its format (three unrelated music playlets) didn’t lend itself to major Broadway/regional theater success.

Perhaps an intimate theater setting, like Crown City’s, brings out the best in The Apple Tree’s three very different mini-musicals. In any case, this is a production to sing about.

If there’s anything which ties “The Diary Of Adam And Eve,” “The Lady And The Tiger,” and “Passionella” together, it’s the age-old conundrum, what if you get what you want and then find out that what you thought you wanted wasn’t really what you wanted after all?

Crown City’s production shrewdly assigns a different director to each tale, the better to give each its own unique flavor. Musical-ette #1, based on Mark Twain’s version of Genesis, goes for charm and heart.  Musical-ette #2, from Frank R. Stockton’s fable, wisely picks camp over pomp.  Musical-ette #3, by humorist Jules Feiffer, satirizes the classic Cinderella story by moving it from a fairy tale kingdom to a fairy tale land of a different sort, Hollywood, U.S.A.

In another smart departure from the Broadway original, rather than have the same two performers play romantic leads in all three acts (as Alan Alda and Barbara Harris did on Broadway), leading roles are divided equally among the nine-member ensemble, giving each performer a chance to shine center stage.

Gary Lamb directs “The Diary Of Adam And Eve,” with engaging performances by Matthew J. Williamson and Morgan Landers as the world’s first couple. Adam awakes with all ribs intact, surrounded by woodland creatures (the ensemble in cute animal garb) which he promptly gives all-too-generic names to, e.g. birds are “flyers,” fish are “swimmers.”  The first man isn’t alone for long though.  A “new long-haired creature” called Eve soon shows up and immediately gives each animal his or her own proper name because, she says, a cow obviously looks like a “cow” and not a “four-pronged white-squirter.”  All the while, the snake (a elegantly menacing, seductive Jon Mullich) lurks in the background, apple in hand. Adam soon discovers humor, and tells Eve the world’s first joke, with the punch line “To get to the other side.”  The snake then informs Eve that it’s not apples that are forbidden, it’s chestnuts, especially the old ones (like Adam’s jokes), and that’s all the first woman needs to be convinced to take a bite.  You know the rest.

Williamson is a fine Hollywood-handsome musical theater leading man and the equally photogenic Landers has an exquisite lyric soprano. The two have great chemistry, so much so that the playlet’s ending brought unexpected tears to my eyes.

Up next is “The Lady Or The Tiger,” directed by William A. Reilly, who has made the savvy decision of not taking Stockton’s fable too seriously. Choreographer Bradley Michaels’ disco dance moves for the ancient Egyptian-esque dancers also signal that this will be more Mel Brooks than Cecil B. DeMille.

A man known only as The Balladeer (Brian Maples) introduces this tale of star-crossed lovers, Princess Barbara (pronounced bar-BARE-ah) and Captain Sanjar (Kit Paquin and Josh Helmuth), who live in a land ruled by Barbara’s father, King Arik (Mullich).  The King has thought up a novel way to judge prisoners guilty or innocent.  Arrestees are taken to a public arena where they must choose between two doors. Behind one is a ferocious tiger (certain death) and behind the other is a beautiful lady (certain marriage).

Barbara falls for Sanjar from the moment she sees him returning from battle but since Sanjar is a commoner, theirs is a “Forbidden Love.”  When Sanjar is arrested, only Barbara can save him. Though the princess is able to wangle from the Royal Tiger Keeper (Maples) the secret of who/what’s behind the two doors in the sexy “I’ve Got What You Want,” when she learns that her sultry servant Najira (Amy Ball) is going to be behind one of the doors, Barbara determines that if she can’t have her hunky soldier, no one will.

By camping up “The Lady And The Tiger,” Reilly has strengthened considerably the “weak link” in The Apple Tree trilogy, and with performers as musically talented (and sexy) as Paquin, Helmuth, Maples, and Ball (and a tiger as cuddly as the one Williamson plays), there’s something to entertain and titillate everyone in The Apple Tree Part Two.

In “Passionella,” directed by Williamson, The Apple Tree has saved the best for last, including the standout performance of the evening, a Broadway-worthy star turn by Stephanie Fredricks. Fredricks is Ella, a mousy chimney sweep turned into Hollywood movie star Passionella thanks to her story’s narrator slash fairy godmother (a Brooklyn-accented Ball, a hoot in the role).

In the wave of a magic wand, Fredricks is transformed from frumpy Ella to drop dead gorgeous Passionella, her Rhonda Fleming red hair and Marilyn Monroe curves wrapped in a slinky, sequined Oscar-ready evening gown. Subway riders are agog.  “(Who, Who, Who, Who) Who Is She?” they wonder. “Who is this ravishing sight? With her fantasy face, her staggering smile, her indescribable BUST!” There’s only one catch.  TV addict Ella can only be beautiful, glamorous Passionella from the nightly news to the end of the Late-Late Show, at which point she must revert to her usual “sooty self.”

Of course every Passionella must have her Prince Charming, and Passionella finds hers in hot new movie star Flip (choreographer/understudy Michaels stepping into the role with assurance and sex appeal).  When Passionella catches sight of Flip, described as a combination of Bogart, Brando, Presley … with “the hair style of Eleanor Roosevelt,” it’s love at first sight for our heroine. It takes Flip a bit longer to fall for Passionella, though.  In country-western mode, Flip sings “You Are Not Real” to this woman with “a Cinerama body and a celluloid heart.”  This prompts Passionella to demand that Mr. Producer (Mullich shining yet again) allow her to play a real woman, i.e. a chimney sweep.

And the rest, as they say, is Hollywood history, with a hilariously ironic twist ending.

Unlike the original Broadway production (and the short-lived 2006 Broadway revival which starred Kristin Chenoweth and Brian d’Arcy James), Crown City’s production makes The Apple Tree an ensemble piece, and it works wondrously to have leads in one play as supporting players in the others.

Michaels’ choreography for Acts 2 and 3 suits each piece to a T. (I love the “Vogue” moves in Ancient Wherever).  Performing gloriously unamplified to musical director Reilly’s prerecorded tracks, there isn’t a weak vocal link in the cast.  Williamson and Lamb’s set design makes clever use of ladders, and its budget-constrained look actually suits the story-book nature of the three tales. Lamb’s lighting is fine and dandy. Best of all are Caitlin Erin O’Hare’s costumes, from Adam and Eve’s beige one-piece long underwear and the Garden Of Eden’s adorable animal creatures, to “The Lady And The Tiger”’s skimpy, sexy ancient duds, to Passionella and Flip’s 50s style Hollywood garb.

Though The Apple Tree will never be in the same league as Bock and Harnick’s better known musicals, its reappearance on the L.A. theater scene is welcome news, especially in a production as charming (and beautifully performed) as this one is.

A return visit on Independence Day found The Apple Tree even more delicious and tempting than ever.  Williamson and Landers are every bit as delightful and touching as Adam and Eve, and Mullich even more slickly seductive as the snake.   A second viewing of The Lady And The Tiger made me appreciate even more Pacquin’s sexy temptress with one heck of a belt (the vocal one, not the accessory) and All-American boy Helmuth’s engaging musical send-up of the romantic hero. Casey Zeman stepped into the role of the balladeer, exhibiting a vibrant tenor and comedic spark. Fredricks continues to steal the evening as the beautiful, glamorous Passionella—a performance worth the price of admission all by itself. Ball remains a laugh-getter in her dual roles. (I especially enjoyed her quirky godmother this time.) Ben Rovner (not reviewed previously) couldn’t be better as Flip, Passionella’s Prince Charming. He’s sexy, charismatic, a good singer and comedian, and has moves to do young Elvis proud. You’ll be hearing much more from him. Finally, Michaels highly original choreography, kooky for Act 2, pizzazzy for Act 3, deserves kudos once again.  The Apple Tree has been extended, and is well worth a visit or two.

Crown City Theater, St. Matthew’s Church, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
June 12, 2009

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