Irving — Leave it to Lyric Stage to dig up a real treasure of a show. The Golden Apple, by composer Jerome Moross with a book by John Latouche, is almost completely unknown except to the most zealous of Broadway experts.
It looked like a surefire hit in 1954 when it opened at the off-Broadway Phoenix Theatre. One month later the show moved to Broadway at the Alvin Theatre. There was even a big name (maybe a future big name) in the cast, Kaye Ballard. Further, it won Best Musical from the New York Drama Critics Circle.
But, alas, it only ran for 125 performances before it ended up on the dusty shelves of Broadway history, where the indomitable Jay Dias, Music Director at Lyric Stage, found it.
That is not exactly true. There have been a handful of productions since 1954, but in a handful of regional theaters and, of course, without the full orchestra and original orchestrations (by Moross and Hershy Kay) that are the trademark of Lyric Stage. But, go figure. It was something different and the critics loved it. It even produced a song that became a standard, the bluesy Lazy Afternoon.
It is in fact widely considered by the cognoscenti to be a great show, collecting the good/bad news reputation of “the best show that ever flopped”—a backhanded compliment if ever there was one. But who knows? This spiffy and well-sung production may set off a well-deserved revival in more theaters.
Before this review progresses and gets mired in murky details, let me say that this is a must-see show. Not only for historical reasons, but because it contains a compendium of popular American songs and styles from the 50’s. There are lovely ballads, soft shoe numbers and cakewalks, marches and send-ups of music hall selections. All of this is skillfully knitted together by the composer and given a lush orchestral accompaniment.
Musical director Jay Dias is the real star of the evening as he leads his orchestra through their paces. Stefan Novinski also does a fine job as stage director. He keeps the large cast moving about their business and creates a series of vignettes when the characters interact. John de los Santos comes up with a bouquet of choreography to fit the widely varied requirements of the divergent scenes.
Donna Marquet’s scenery is a marvel of simplicity. It appears that her initial sketches were simply blown up and painted on drops. This gives the production an unworldly, temporary feel, as if everything will vanish—like the town of Brigadoon—at the last curtain. Just brilliant. Jen J. Madison’s costumes add to this effect and, while grounding us in the 1900’s, offer a hint of now that makes us realize that the original stories, thousands of years old, could just as easily pop into existence in 2014 as in 1900.
The Golden Apple is basically an opera written in a pop musical style. While unheard of at the time, through-composed musicals abound these days (Evita, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables and so on). It must have seemed quite novel then and maybe a little mystifying because sung diction is harder to understand than spoken dialogue.
You have to pay close attention to what is going on in this show because it is hard to follow unless you know the story ahead of time. A synopsis in the program would have been golden. Nothing there suggests the Homer connection (aside from character names listed) and without that critical piece of information, the plot is indecipherable. Even with this valuable piece of knowledge, it’s difficult to keep up. In fact, a second viewing would probably open up an amazing amount of what was missed the first time. The story moves very quickly and is obtuse by the very nature of condensing a long classic tale (in this case, parts of two epic poems) and moving it to the modern era. Few, if any, of the characters are referred to by name in the show.
Valuable questions—such as “who are these people?” and “what is going on?”—have to be gathered along the way.
The show is based on Homer, parts of both The Iliad and The Odyssey—the bane of high school students everywhere. It starts with Helen being taken off to Troy by a prince named Paris. The Greeks mounted a fierce war to get her back. They finally won by a trick that has become so famous it’s a metaphor. They pretended to retreat and left a mammoth wooden horse as tribute. We all know what happened: after the victorious Trojans took the horse into the walled city, Greeks came pouring out and they slaughtered everyone in sight. The first act of Golden Apple tells this story.
The cast is huge—more than 40 singing actors. After all, you need a couple of armies for starters. The show opens in about 1900 in Angel’s Roost, a small town in Washington State, near Mount Olympus.
Here is what happens, and who does what, but not exactly in this order.
Helen is attractive, but the secret to her popularity with all of the guys is her ready “availability.” Danielle Estes endows her with a sharply edged voice (hopefully on purpose) and little in the way of brains. A young and buff traveling salesman named Paris drops in (literally, in a balloon). She manages to rip his shirt off in a dance routine. He looks ever so much better than her old, slightly slimy husband, Menelaus, so she gets in the balloon and runs off with him.
As Menelaus, Andy Baldwin is as flexible as a rag doll. The floppy way he moves gives the appearance of not having a skeleton. As Paris, Hayden Clifton is the opposite—a trained ballet dancer with zero body fat. Paris is a mute character, never speaking but dancing instead. Clifton is excellent and executes some impressive steps, such as entering with a flashy series of chiane turns.
Penelope is the stay-at-home wife of the war hero Ulysses. Kristen Lassiter’s portrayal of her is on the bland side. However, she has a wonderfully operatic voice and makes the music soar. Christopher J. Deaton as Ulysses matches her with an equally bland portrayal but vocal magnificence. What a dull couple they are! Why not make them the slightly older high school jock, now war hero, and homecoming queen, now respected matron?
There’s no Trojan Horse here; instead, the fate of Helen is settled by fisticuffs in a boxing ring. Ulysses wins and Helen goes back to her former life.
In act two Ulysses and his men decide to stay in the “big city” of Rhododendron. They are seduced by its pleasures and their wild night on the town lasts about ten years while Ulysses’ men are picked off one by one.
All of them have names familiar to readers of Homer’s epic poem, but it is impossible to tell who is who because only Ajax is addressed by name (and at his demise). But the men who play these roles are as good as any regional theater in the country could put on the stage.
The women’s chorus is equally fine as are all of the singers in the other roles. Even though you might be unsure what they have to do with the story, they paint a true picture of small town life. Three quarrelsome matrons are rivals in a best dessert contest and their trio is delightful. Janelle Lutz is hysterical as the Mayor’s wife, Lovey Mars (a stand in for Aphrodite). Jenny Tucker is wonderful as Mrs. Juniper (a portmanteau of “Jupiter” and “Juno”) and Sarah Powell is equal to the other two as Miss Minerva.
Deborah Brown plays Mother Hare, a hippie-style fortuneteller, with wild-haired relish. Somehow she is the catalyst for all that happens. She is also the source of the Golden Apple, which is the prize at the dessert contest but has an unclear continuing role in the musical.
If this sounds negative, it is not supposed to be. The music is marvelous and the vocal performances are equally fine. The orchestra is impressive and the production moves smoothly.
The problem is that this viewer—who knows his Homer—didn’t know what was going on and whom these characters were supposed to represent. It’s a good guess this will be a common problem among viewers.
So, find a synopsis online and read it carefully. Then go see this remarkable show. You may never have another chance.