Porchlight Revisits THE APPLE TREE
Porchlight Music Theater invited audiences to take another bite of musical theater history with Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s THE APPLE TREE. The musical, composed of three one-acts centered on the theme of temptation, was the season opener for the Porchlight Revisits series. As usual, Porchight Artistic Director Michael Weber introduced the show with a brief educational talk on THE APPLE TREE’s history.
THE APPLE TREE features a deft ensemble of nine actors, all who play various roles in each of the show’s three acts. While the original production featured the same leads across all three pieces, Porchlight’s production puts different actors (and directors) front and center for each. It’s a concept that works well, allowing the actors to take the lead in the roles most suited to their talents. Frankie Leo Bennett directs THE DIARY OF ADAM AND EVE; while it’s no fault of Benett’s, this is the most unoriginal and creaky of the three acts in THE APPLE TREE. It’s a rather traditional play on the origin story of Adam and Eve, and of course, the infamous Snake that tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. While Jonah Cochin, Ciarra Stroud, and Susan Hofflander bring out the quirks in Bock and Harnick’s particular versions of Adam, Eve, and Snake, THE DIARY OF ADAM AND EVE meanders. It’s also hard not to look at the gender roles in this one act as mostly dated and uninteresting. In some moments, the one act seems ahead of its time, as when Stroud’s Eve is forced to laugh when Cochin’s Adam claims he has invented humor and tells her an extremely unfunny joke-ah, the origins of women laughing at men’s jokes just to get through the day. Outside of moments like that, though, Bock and Harnick present a rather tired portrait of Adam as strong and adventurous, while Eve is a mother figure and caretaker. The music for this act is pretty, and Stroud has a lovely, soaring tone, but it’s also not as distinctive as the score for the other two acts.
After departing the Garden of Eden, we arrive at THE LADY OR THE TIGER?, directed and choreographed by Jamal Howard. Musically, Bock and Harnick have given THE LADY OR THE TIGER? a more specific style-musical theater aficionados will recognize the narrative stylings of Balladeer (Michael Mejia), who brings audiences into the show at the act’s start. He queues up the story of the mighty King Arik (Hofflander, again displaying her comedic chops), who finds it just to have prisoners stand trial by standing before two doors. Behind one door, there’s a tiger, who will devour the prisoner. Behind the other, there’s a maiden from among the populace in the royal court-the prisoner will be freed but must marry her immediately. Of course, Princess Barbara has fallen for a commoner, Captain Sanjar (Ruchir Khazanchi). When King Arik discovers their forbidden love, he makes Sanjar stand the ultimate test. Wanting to save her lover’s life, Princess Barbara finds out which door will be which at Sanjar’s trial. But when she learns that a beautiful woman in court will stand behind one of the doors, she must decide if she wants to be selfish or selfless for her love.
THE LADY OR THE TIGER? is a fantastic comedic vehicle for Maddison Denault as Princess Barbara. She delivers the act’s comedic power ballads with verve. While Khazanchi’s presence isn’t quite as formidable, he’s a great scene partner for Denault. This is also a much more concise and lively one act as written than the previous one, and Howard’s direction and choreography keep it moving along at a brisk pace.
THE APPLE TREE concludes with PASSIONELLA, a riff on the classic Cinderella story centered on Ella-a poor chimney sweep who dreams of becoming a Hollywood movie star. Directed and choreographed by Laura Savage, THE APPLE TREE saves the best for last. PASSIONELLA is a delightful and exaggerated satire with jazz influences in the score. And in Leah Morrow, Porchlight has cast a total star in the dual roles of Ella/Passionella. Morrow seems born to play this part; she’s an outsized comedic actor who also maintains the absolute truth of her character-and she’s also one of the strongest singers in the ensemble. Morrow also plays terrifically off Emma Rosenthal in the role of the Narrator and Fairy Godmother. Rosenthal taps into the Narrator’s dry sense of humor, and her more understated presence is a great contrast to Morrow’s overly dramatic Ella. Of the three acts in THE APPLE TREE, PASSIONELLA as written has the strongest sense of style, place, and narrative; it’s fitting that Bock and Harnick would end with the act tied most specifically to the moment in which they wrote the show.
Because certain elements are dated and others are tied specifically to the 1960s, it makes complete sense that Porchlight Revisits would showcase THE APPLE TREE-it’s not a musical that’s likely to be revived any time soon. It displays Bock and Harnick’s talents as a composer/lyricist team, though, and the intelligence of using the theme of temptation-and the powerful notion that getting everything you ever wanted rarely looks like how you think it will-into each of the three acts .
While I didn’t care much for the material in THE DIARY OF ADAM AND EVE, I also deeply appreciate that Bock and Harnick pulled temptation and longing into the other acts as the narrative thread-rather than making this a musical all about Bible stories. That’s a much more interesting, universal, and human idea, and it justifies THE APPLE TREE’s spot in the Porchlight Revisits series.
Visit PorchlightMusicTheatre.org to learn about the remaining productions in the 2022/2023 season.
Photo Credit: Oni Wright
Review by Rachel Weinberg