The Golden Apple – Encores! – New York City Center

Ryan Silverman Mikaela Bennett in the Encores! production of Golden Apple

Ryan Silverman and Mikaela Bennett in the Encores! production of Golden Apple at New York City Center. Picture: Joan Marcus

The Golden Apple, an Encores! production, was performed at New York City Center.

Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Encores! staged concert series of Broadway musicals from the past has closed out its 2017 season in spectacular fashion, with its mounting of a nonpareil gem from 1954, The Golden Apple.

With a 40-member cast, 28-piece orchestra and more than this series’ usual assortment of evocative costumes and set pieces, the affection that the Encores! nabobs have for this piece was more than palpable. The affection vibrated as well through the inspired work of director Michael Berresse, choreographer Joshua Bergasse and musical director Rob Berman.

Long regarded as a cult favorite, The Golden Apple was the first musical to transfer from Off-Broadway to Broadway, where it managed to attain a short run of only 125 performances. Perhaps, its over-weening ambition and classical literary conceits were a bit too much for mainstream audiences of the time.

The sung-through libretto is a gleeful take on the Homeric epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey. It’s set, in fable-like fashion, in the state of Washington, situated at the northwest edge of the USA, where quite fortuitously there is a mountain dubbed Mount Olympus.

The time is circa 1900. The inhabitants of the farm town, Angel’s Roost, are greeting the fellows coming back from the Spanish-American War. The main characters include the returning hero Ulysses, and his wife Penelope.

There is also the town’s irrepressible party girl, Helen, now supposedly settled down in marriage to the older Menelaus, the town sheriff.

However, when Paris, a travelling salesman, lands in town, it’s mutual seduction time. Paris carries Helen off to the big city of Rhododendron, and to bring her back, the guys of Angel’s Roost, once again led by Ulysses, march off to war and fantastical soul-testing adventures.

The music by Jerome Moross and the lyrics/book by John Latouche are virtually seamless, as the score stretches from ragtime and vaudeville to vintage musical theatre balladry and operatic glory. The abundance of on-the-money pastiches are enough to perhaps make even Stephen Sondheim a bit envious.

Moross (1913-1983), a composer of classical as well as theatre music, had his greatest success as a composer of background music for movie Westerns. His score here often reflects the energy and expansive of that music.

Latouche’s name may have more resonance with musical theatre devotees. In his relatively short life (he died in 1956 at age 41), he created lyrics for such shows as Pins and Needles and Cabin in the Sky and the opera The Ballad of Baby Doe.

While not awash with major marquee names, the cast burst with one formidable talent after another. Ryan Silverman, who has gained acclaim and various award nominations in such productions as the Off-Broadway revival of Passion and the Broadway revival of Side Show, played Ulysses.

He imbued the role with a baritone that rang out with clarion clarity, along with a tremendously affable macho authority, whether he was leading the ensemble in the jaunty ‘Store-bought Suit’ or taking the stage alone with the commanding ‘Ulysses’ Soliloquy’.

As Penelope, Mikaela Bennett made an amazing professional stage debut with top-drawer diva authority, meshed with an inherent sweetness. (She’s a fourth-year undergraduate at the famed Juilliard School.)

Her negotiation of the stratospheric passages of Penelope’s climactic ‘Tirade’ was, to put it mildly, thrilling. Her duets with Silverman in such numbers as ‘It’s the Going Home Together’ and ‘We’ve Just Begun’ soared to a Rodgers-and-Hammerstein-like peak of gorgeousness.

The show’s most enduring number, ‘Lazy Afternoon’, fell to the character of Helen, and it was rendered with all its slow-paced inviting sexiness by Lindsay Mendez.

Mendez, who counts among her Broadway turns the misunderstood but beloved Elphaba of Wicked, imbued Helen with soul as well as impishness. The role is a unique star turn and Mendez lived up to it completely.

Paris, a dance role, was fulfilled to perfection by Barton Cowperthwaite. His slinking was both submissive and seductive (and physically astounding with slow-motion handstands and back bends) as he listened to Helen’s invitation to share a lazy afternoon.

Among other notables in the cast, Jason Kravits made a happily insidious guide for Ulysses and pals as they went from one sampling of sin to another.

Ashley Brown, Carrie Compere and Alli Mauzey were a lively trio of prominent townswomen, while Jeff Blumenkrantz was a properly miffed Menelaus. Adding to the wondrous rendering of high notes was N’Kenge as the town’s resident psychic.

As might be expected, dance plays an important role in the production. Director Berresse is a choreographer as well and gained some of his earlier performer acclaim on Broadway in the dance role of Bill Carlson in the 1999 revival of Kiss Me, Kate.

Like the score, Bergasse’s choreography moved breathtakingly through genres, with generous helpings of Martha Graham suppleness, Agnes De Mille piquant Americana, and Bob Fosse muscle-twitching.

The question that often accompanies an Encores! production is, will it transfer to Broadway. Its revival of Chicago continues to make Broadway history. As for The Golden Apple, it may still be too much of a good thing for Broadway producers eyeing the average Broadway ticket-buyer. But one thing’s for sure: the seven performances of this Encores! production could only have added mightily to its cult mystique.

Ron Cohen

Readers may also be interested in:

Pacific Overtures – Classic Stage Company, New York – Review

Bandstand – Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York – Review

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