Sunday, 14 May 2017

THE GOLDEN APPLE by Jerome Moross and John LaTouche at City Center Encores

     Like many musical theater aficionados, I have always wanted to see a good performance of THE GOLDEN APPLE. The show opened at the Phoenix Theatre, a former Yiddish Theatre on Second Avenue and 12th Street, in 1954 and became a cult hit. Writer James McCourt wrote that it was on his "free-association queer syllabus," a show gays at the time had to see (I don't quite get this). I remember as a budding show queen of 12 all the hoopla about the musical. The producers moved it to Broadway where it quickly died--too witty, too musically sophisticated for Broadway in the age of THE PAJAMA GAME (not that there's anything wrong with THE PAJAMA GAME but THE GOLDEN APPLE is another animal altogether). Failure on Broadway only made the show more of a cult hit for the cognoscenti. An original cast album was produced of less that half of the two hour score--bits an pieces of a coherent work. McCarthyites found the show's satire of American lust, greed and hunger for power un-American. A complete recording of a not very good Texas production was put out a few years ago.
     THE GOLDEN APPLE is an American retelling of Homer, set in a small town in the state of Washington. Yes, there's Helen (the always fabulous Lyndsay Mendez), a sexually-liberated belter common in American musicals since at least Ado Annie in OKLAHOMA, married to a middle-aged Menelaus. She flies off in a hot-air balloon with a Paris (Barton Cowperthwaite), a lingerie salesman (a mute dancing role). Ulysses (Ryan Silverman), fresh home from the Spanish-American War, goes off to avenge Menelaus and bring Helen home, leaving his wife Penelope (Mikaela Bennett), behind. Much of the second act is taken up with the temptations Ulysses and his men face trying to get home. These are 1950s versions of Ulysses' trials--greed, lust, power American style.
     THE GOLDEN APPLE is through sung, more an opera than a typical musical. There's none of the weak musical padding of pop-operas of the 1970s and 1980s, none of those awful, endlessly repeated four note recitatives. This is a real score, a worthy companion to the great American operas of the period, Douglas Moore's THE BALLAD OF BABY DOE (also with LaTouche words), Carlisle Floyd's SUSANNAH, and Robert Ward's THE CRUCIBLE and that brilliant, if problematic operetta, Bernstein's CANDIDE (LaTouche was one of the many lyricists on that work). It's one of the great words-music collaborations in American musical theatre. There's every kind of American musical form in this rich, varied score.
     The City Center has done us an enormous service in producing THE GOLDEN APPLE so well. The musical values have been not only preserved but celebrated. A thirty-one piece orchestra (not a synthesizer in sight) give us a beautiful rendering of Moross's orchestrations. There's a big chorus and     excellent leads. Ryan Silverman and debutante Mikaela Bennett sing beautifully. Silverman is a great exemplar of a dying breed, the handsome baritone lead. Bennett, still a Juilliard student, pushes her beautiful voice too much. She will be a real opera star one day. Lindsay Mendez is her usual terrific self singing and acting as if there is nowhere she should be but in a spotlight. Everyone else belongs in this company. Michael Berresse's staging is simple but effective as is Joshua Bergasse's choreography. Bravos to Rob Berman for such superb musical direction. The Encores series gets minimal rehearsal. I saw the last performance, which was totally assured musically and theatrically.
     THE GOLDEN APPLE was a real treat. Kudos and thanks to all involved.

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