Director Gary Griffin makes no mistake about where his chief asset lies in “The Apple Tree.” Just as it no doubt was for Barbara Harris in Mike Nichols’ original 1966 Broadway production, this triptych of mini-musicals about love and temptation becomes a delectable showcase for the comedic gifts of Kristin Chenoweth. Composing team Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s frothy follow-up project has nothing musically to rival their previous “Fiddler on the Roof,” and there’s little here in the distaff lead’s orbit to match that glittering axial force. But as a welcome return for the “Wicked” star to a New York stage, the Encores! season capper offers much to enjoy.
Based on stories by Mark Twain, Frank R. Stockton and Jules Feiffer, the show’s three parts are loosely connected thematically but given distinctive musical treatment in each chapter, providing an eclectic effect not unlike a variety show.
As befits a tale set in the dawning world, the opening act, “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” has a delicate, almost tentative sound, notably in the poignantly comic, lullaby-inflected “What Makes Me Love Him.” A campy episode set in a long-ago, semi-barbaric kingdom, the second piece, “The Lady or the Tiger?,” cranks up the brass, shifting into bolder bombastic arrangements that underline the story’s kinship with bigscreen toga tales. The trio’s final chapter, “Passionella: A Romance of the ’60s,” takes on a more cartoonish showbiz flavor appropriate to its fixation with celebrity culture.
Each story starts on a comic high and then deflates midway, redeemed primarily by Chenoweth’s savvy turn in a role that gets to exercise her deft comic timing as well as both the quirky personality and the operatic high end of her vocal talents. Chenoweth also subjects her own diva vanity to some appealing self-mockery. It’s easy to see why this show lured the actress back to the Encores! concert series, and without her, this would be a flimsy affair.
Chenoweth is given warm if unassuming support by Malcolm Gets, whose low-key charms, sweet singing voice and boyishly handsome looks are well utilized in the roles originally played by Alan Alda. Particularly in the opener, in which Gets plays a clueless Adam to Chenoweth’s quick-witted Eve, the pairing yields some droll comedy as the prototype couple cautiously test the yin-yang balance of man and woman. But like a hasty marriage quickly drained of its passion, the blossoming of love and family for Adam and Eve instead becomes blandly sentimental where it should be emotionally moving.
The disappointing element of the key cast is Michael Cerveris, a normally robust performer (the eponymous lead in Broadway’s upcoming “Sweeney Todd” revival) here out of his element in comic roles, starting with the Snake that coaxes Eve to taste forbidden fruit. (Larry Blyden originally played Cerveris’ roles, including a twangy balladeer in the second story and the starchy narrator of the third.)
The songs are memorable mainly for their handling by Chenoweth. Highlights include her wide-eyed introduction to the garden’s wonders, “Here in Eden,” and back-to-back comic numbers in the second seg, in which she plays a princess torn between sacrificing her military-man lover (Gets) to a ferocious tiger or to another woman. One of these, “I’ve Got What You Want,” is a vampy delight enlivened by some hilariously clumsy attempts at whipcracking by the star.
After the second tale’s arch silliness, Feifer might have been expected to supply a little more satirical bite. But the closing act trades in tired caricatures, serving only as an opportunity for more fun from Chenoweth, playing a chimney sweep who dreams of being a glamorous screen siren. Again scoring two consecutive numbers that bring down the house, Chenoweth sings amusingly off-key in “Oh, to Be a Movie Star,” then emerges butterfly-like from her sooty cocoon as a blonde bombshell in “Gorgeous,” even getting to sneak in one of her lofty high notes.
If all three vignettes ultimately play like extended sketches in a musical that doesn’t add up to much, they at least provide a vehicle that places this talented musical comedy performer front and center. Her presence alone makes this a more worthy sendoff for departing music director Rob Fisher, who leaves the Encores! series with this production.