As star vehicles go, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s “The Apple Tree” is a female musical comedy performer’s dream. The 1966 tuner snagged a Tony for original lead Barbara Harris and provides a snug showcase for the effervescent vocal and comic gifts of Kristin Chenoweth in her welcome return to Broadway. But while the triptych of musical vignettes was charming in its semi-staged Encores! presentation last year, Roundabout’s decision to upgrade to Broadway in a slapped-together production at Studio 54 only exposes the flimsy material’s limitations.
There’s still lots to enjoy here, but with a top ticket north of $100, sweet and pleasant doesn’t quite cut it. Unlike other revivals sparked by Encores! airings such as “Chicago,” “Wonderful Town” and “The Pajama Game,” this insubstantial musical barely withstands a full-scale staging in a large house. A quaint relic of the era of variety-show sketch comedy, it establishes a tenuous link between the three stories of Man, Woman and the Devil. Downsizing from the full orchestra onstage at Encores! to 15 musicians and a smaller ensemble also adds to the generally anemic quality.
Taken together, Bock and Harnick’s songs have little to rival their earlier collaborations on “Fiddler on the Roof,” “She Loves Me” or “Fiorello!” Nonetheless, there’s a versatility and command of tone and theme on display that identify the composer-lyricist team as master craftsmen.
The numbers extend in range to reflect the style and subject matter of each mini-musical, based on stories by Mark Twain, Frank R. Stockton and Jules Feiffer. The dawn of humankind and chartering of the male-female dynamic is echoed in soft, dewy ballads and wry comic songs in “The Diary of Adam and Eve.” Brassy fanfares usher in the over-the-top sword-and-sandal spoof of “The Lady or the Tiger?,” and showbiz pizzazz flavors the satirical dream of stardom in “Passionella: A Romance of the ’60s.”
While the sentimental opening tale offers the show’s prettiest songs and most nuanced treatment, it becomes the weakest part here due largely to the austere staging choices made by director Gary Griffin and designer John Lee Beatty. The gentle comedy of the exploratory interaction between self-reliant Adam (Brian d’Arcy James) and bossy nester Eve (Chenoweth) too often seems dwarfed on the vast empty stage, littered with stepladders and wooden boards in a bare-bones style reminiscent of “The Fantasticks.”
Chenoweth has the timing and physical comedy skills of a classic screwball star like Carole Lombard, and her airy, effortless soprano makes enchanting work of songs such as “Here in Eden,” “Feelings,” “What Makes Me Love Him” and the daffy lullaby “Go to Sleep Whatever You Are.” But even with her delectable turn, the material is too thin to support an entire act.
James’ regular-guy Adam has moments but lacks warmth. When he gets to show some heart in “Eve,” he’s shortchanged by the scene-stealing (if admittedly hilarious) shtick of Chenoweth as she bustles back and forth across the stage like a biblical Martha Stewart on a decor mission. (James’ roles in the show were played in Mike Nichols’ original production by Alan Alda, heard here as the voice of God.)
For the second story, Jess Goldstein’s vibrant costumes and the casbah-via-Vegas setting for the ancient Middle Eastern kingdom provide slightly more lavish eye candy. Chenoweth plays the lusty princess torn between sacrificing her soldier lover (James) to a savage beast or another woman. Her finest moment here is vamping through “I’ve Got What You Want” while perilously cracking a whip that threatens to topple her headgear.
Closing seg has Chenoweth as chimney sweep Ella, fantasizing about the glamorous life. A touch of magic via her TV set gives the soot-stained frump a Jayne Mansfield makeover, hourglass curves and instant fame — with conditions. The transformation is deftly mirrored in Chenoweth’s vocals, from tone-deaf forlornness in “Oh, to Be a Movie Star” to trilling self-adulation in “Gorgeous,” the show’s funniest number. That song also provides a virtuosic opportunity for the diva to hit a high D — famously recorded by another singer and played as a joke by Harris in the original production.
His hair teased inexplicably into ’80s-vintage Duran Duran mode in “Tiger” and into an inflated rockabilly quiff as the motorcycle-riding beatnik celebrity who sets Passionella straight, James sings smoothly and displays fine comic chops, but he’s second fiddle all the way.
Same goes for Marc Kudisch — a dependable class act but underutilized here. He plays the satanic Snake in “Adam and Eve,” complete with serpentine head moves; a twangy folk balladeer in “Tiger”; and a droll narrator in “Passionella.”
The show doesn’t exactly zip along under Griffin’s workmanlike direction, but he knows the engine here is the pint-sized star with the radiant smile, and he gives her plenty of room to purr.
It’s hard to imagine material that could cater more amusingly to the vanity and fearsome confidence of Chenoweth’s stage persona — admiring her form as original woman Eve (“Whatever I am, I’m certainly a beautiful one”), carried aloft by slaves as Princess Barbara (“Make way! Her goddessness!”) or gushing over her sudden attributes as Passionella (“I am such a divine me! Every studio will sign me!”). There’s no call for humility here and no confusion as to the single motivating element behind this production.
Here’s hoping that next time Chenoweth takes a Broadway breather from doing movies and TV, it will be in a more rewarding musical.