With the exception of opera star Ezio Pinza in “South Pacific,” who can remember the names of the actors who starred opposite Mary Martin? The same thing applies, for the most part, to the male actors who played opposite Ethel Merman and Gwen Verdon, to cite only a tiny cluster of Broadway divas of the past.
Just now, Brian d’Arcy James one of the brightest and most versatile young Irish-American performers in today’s legitimate theater, finds himself doing first-rate work in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s ambitious but flawed revival of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s 1966 musical trilogy, “The Apple Tree.”
Solid as all three of d’Arcy James’s performances are in the new production playing at Studio 54 through March 11, he’s still trapped in the shadow of Kristin Chenoweth, the pint-sized blonde bombshell whose burgeoning talents constitute the main motivation for digging up the pleasing but less than spectacular show and giving it another life, albeit a strictly limited one, considering the Roundabout’s seasonal schedule.
Forty years ago, when composer Bock and lyricist Harnick, who collaborated on the book, created the show, what they had in mind was, basically, a vehicle for the astonishing talents of Barbara Harris.
Harris’s unique abilities, and even the sound of her voice, still hang over “The Apple Tree” for audiences old enough, and lucky enough, to have seen the original production, which was directed by Mike Nichols, with Alan Alda and the late Larry Blyden in the roles now being performed by d’Arcy James and Marc Kudish. This time the director is Gary Griffin.
Alda is “present” in the new version, courtesy of a brief recording in which as the voice of God, he gives d’Arcy James’s Adams a bit of avuncular advice from above.
Bock and Harnick adapted the trio of minimusicals which comprise “The Apple Tree” from diverse sources, drawing from the works of three extremely disparate writers, Mark Twain, Frank R. Stockton and Jules Feiffer.
Twain’s contribution is probably the best known of the three source items, being the familiar and often adapted story, “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” with d’Arcy James particularly charming as a befuddled-seeming Adam attempting to make sense of the Garden of Eden, with Chenoweth’s Eve testing him at every turn in the road. The slightly strident and still, to an extent, unformed Chenoweth is probably at her best here, darting about and frustrating Adam in his attempts to name the animals, birds and flowers amidst which he finds himself.
The energetic and appealing Kudish has his strongest role here, playing the serpent which so notoriously complicates the lives of the slow-witted Adam and the wily Eve.
The second, most complicated and least rewarding segment by far is “The Lady or the Tiger?” Based on a tale by the now nearly forgotten Stockton, somehow puts the whole troupe, from Griffin and his actors, and even designers John Lee Beatty for set designs, and Jess Goldstein on costumes, at their least inventive.
The story itself is nothing if not a weary chestnut, being the tired old tale about a hero who must choose between opening one of a pair of identical doors, behind one of which he will find a comely maiden, while behind the other lurks an agitated and hungry feline.
Bock and Harnick, not at their nimble best in any part of “The Apple Tree,” seem particularly at sea in “The Lady or the Tiger?” The writers of the scores of such shows as the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fiorello” in 1959, “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1964, and the underrated “She Loves Me” in 1963, didn’t come up with a single outstanding song in “The Apple Tree,” and their contributions to the overall venture are particularly dismal.
As it happens, “She Loves Me” might very easily have provided Chenoweth, a gifted and well-trained soprano of near-operatic quality, with a vastly better vehicle than “The Apple Tree.” In either case, however she’d have found herself walking in the steps of a major talent who had given a truly outstanding performance in the original production, Barbara Cook in “She Loves Me” and of course, Harris in “The Apple Tree.”
The final third of “The Apple Tree” is “Passionella,” drawn from a story by cartoonist and playwright Feiffer having to do with a humble chimney sweep who longs to be a film star, actually achieving her goal for a time.
Unfortunately for Chenoweth, Harris gave a performance as Passionella that was so rich and so resonant that people leaving Studio 54 after the show could be heard imitating the unique way in which Harris spoke the words “movie star” in her winsome character’s oft-repeated line, “I want to be a movie star.”
Feiffer’s gentle, even touching story, clearly inspired by Marilyn Monroe, has lost some of its luster, to the point where what was magical when it was done by Barbara Harris, seems fairly tedious and routine as personified by Kristin Chenoweth, promising though she may be.
The powerful Kudish is restricted to the role of “Balladeer” in the feeble central playlet, “The Lady or the Tiger?” and to the bland part of the “Narrator” in the closer, “Passionella.”
Brian D’Arcy James, in top form as Twain’s Adam in the first sketch, is stuck with poorer material in the final parts of the trilogy. In “The Lady or the Tiger?” doing the rather bland stud, Captain Sanjar, he finds himself trapped in a badly conceived, poorly written “comic hero” role.
In “Passionella,” he does yeoman service as Flip, a bewigged rocker hero who turns out, in an exceedingly thin joke, to be as artificial a creature as the titular glamorpuss delivered with such conspicuous energy and spirit by the hardworking Chenoweth.
The versatile and capable d’Arcy James is deserving of better luck than he’s had since a minor role in the musical, “Titanic” a few seasons back, proved him to be a fine singer as well as a gifted actor. Since then, he’s given a standout performance in Conor McPherson’s powerful but little-seen one-actor play, “The Good Thief,” but hasn’t fared nearly as well in the perilous world of musical theater.
First he was miscast opposite John Lithgow in the ill-fated musical version of the old Hecht-Hill-Lancaster film, “The Sweet Smell of Success,” in which, in the role played with viciousness in the movie by Tony Curtis, he couldn’t quite summon up the requisite measure of sheer evil the part called for.
Then, this past season, he and Keith Carradine replaced stars Jonathan Pryce and Norbert Leo Butz in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” another stage musical drawn from a hit movie. The show, as it happened, had run out of gas, and closed a mere two or three weeks after the new cast took over.
Major talent that he is, better things almost certainly lie ahead for Brian d’Arcy James even if “The Apple Tree” didn’t prove to be one of them, alas.