Cher Public

Golden but not delicious

The cultiest of cult musicals, an All-American take on the Iliad and the Odyssey, the spectacularly witty Golden Apple of John Latouche (words) and Jerome Moross (music), opened Off Broadway in 1953 to some acclaim, moved to Broadway in 1954 and promptly sank, overweighted by its own cleverness. This is a great American opera (all-singing, no talking) and a downright weird choice for the Encores! series at the City Center.  

The score (which produced one standard, “Lazy Afternoon,” and a couple of popular non-standards, such as “Windflowers” and “My Picture in the Papers” and “Store-Bought Suit”) is in its own post-Weillian little world, a trifle off-kilter for the Rodgers or Loesser or Loewe mainstream of its day. The lyrics are such an intricate combination of folksy and literate, the story such a blend of send-ups of the Iliad, the Odyssey and American folk myths of city life and country life, that the show works best—when it works at all—in the most intimate circumstances.

I was fortunate in first being exposed to it at one of its York Theater revivals, in a 200-seat house, the libretto slashed by 45 minutes to, roughly, the running time of the LP released from its original run. The pacing was breakneck and thrilling, the words clear, the dancing small-scale but spectacular.

Encores! might have done very well by this show as one of their off-site occasions, but in the cavernous City Center, an awkward fit for any show, the venue fights the material every step of the way. The lyrics will be half-heard at best despite the micing (overmicing in some cases—calm down, please, Jeff Blumenkrantz, your interjections aren’t that funny).

The band under Rob Berman is marvelous, and they use the original orchestrations with their very striking sound. The dancing (Joshua Bergasse) is creative in its use of old steps for the old rhythms. Encores! does best with a big singing, dancing show and clear spoken dialogue to set off the songs. Through-sung and intricate, The Golden Apple does not suit the audience or the house. If you do not already know and love the work, you will probably not enjoy the revival.

The casting has been careful, focusing on the sounds of the famous original. Lindsay Mendez is not sensually suggestive in her reading of “Lazy Afternoon,” the song that made Kaye Ballard a star, but she has a star’s sense of how to seize and hold a stage against any size chorus of opposition. Helen should be a narcissist, and Mendez quite properly seizes the stage by the throat whenever she sings or dances on it.

The contrast to not-so-nice Helen is very nice Penelope, and here Encores! presents a treasure in Mikaela Bennett, a veteran of NYFOS and other venues making her stage debut. The voice is of operatic quality (pity about the microphones, though they are necessary at City Center), a luscious old-fashioned lyric soprano of exactly the sincerity and fervor the part requires, and she packs the punch for Penelope’s Tirade when Ulysses finally gets home. Unfortunately, she is not cut out for Circe as well, and the singer of Penelope should also sing Circe, to explain Ulysses’ attraction to the latter. At Encores!, Circe is performed by N’Kenge, otherwise Mother Hare.

 

Ashley Brown possesses the majestic rural clubwoman demeanor and sneering mezzo soprano for Mrs. Juniper and her urban alter ego, Madame Calypso (the “nympho megalo ego dipso / maniac”), but her song goes on a bit long (like the Calypso interlude in Homer). Alli Mauzey is Miss Minerva, the schoolmarm, and also the Mad Scientist who predicts humanity is “Doomed Doomed Doomed.”

Once a man was the monarch of creation
Now he’s just an unimportant carnivore
For we’ve found in our researches
His ingredients you can purchase
For a buck at your pharmacy store.

“We’re the accidental offspring of the monkeys
What a betterbreed of scientist could make
For compared with all the glories
Of our modern lab’ratories
Man is just a biological mistake!

“Oh we’re doomed, doomed, doomed!
Oh, we’re doomed, doomed, doomed!
Oh, we’re doomed to disappear without a trace!
Because you all are just
Little specks of cosmic dust
Oh, it’s doom, doom, doom
For the well-known human race!

Her diction could use work, and she should wear a SINGLE monocular glass (her episode is based on the Cyclops), but she turkey-trots with the best. Carrie Compere, as Lovey Mars, is a bit whorish for a small-town officer’s wife, but she performs The Siren with thrilling abandon. Mother Hare (the show’s version of Discord) and Circe (the woman without mercy) are played by N’Kenge, whose voice and message are clear even when the lyrics to her predictions are smudgy.

Ryan Silverman is an old-fashioned 1950s leading man, dark and handsome, broad-shouldered and baritoned, and he very properly plays Ulysses (Stephen Douglass in the original), with the right notes, the right jokes, the right phrasing and a pretty good prize-fight with the balletic Barton Cowperthwaite’s piss-elegant Paris. I wonder how Silverman would sound with Ms. Bennett in a proper-sized theater with no microphones; I bet they’d be spectacular together, in every duet from Babes in Arms to The Fantasticks. They’re mighty enjoyable in The Golden Apple.

Jason Kravits plays Hector, the Mayor (and also Charybdis, in whose brokerage firm the boys unfortunately invest their fares home). He is a fast-talking, sharp-dealing, ever-smiling politician of the kind who have been the just object of American satire from Mark Twain’s day to the present, and he gives us a song and dance as slyly as any of them. Jeff Blumenkrantz seemed miscast as Menelaus and Scylla.

Ulysses’ men were all adept and athletic, but someone should explain to director Michael Berresse, who has got so many things right, that in the 1900s and even the 1950s, when guys described a girl as beautiful or not beautiful, they were talking about her face (yes! People fell in love with faces! Norma Desmond had it right!), and gestures describing her bazooms and butt are not appropriate.

These are wonderful performances, worthy of preserving in a studio, far, far livelier than the one and only complete recording of the score by the Irving, Texas, Lyric Stage, released two years ago. In the theater, I fear, they will not persuade newcomers (as the York Theater mini-production did) that The Golden Apple is a masterpiece.

Encores! should return to its proper meat. How about Jerome Kern’s Roberta? Fabulous score plus dance routines created for the movies by Fred and Ginger. The orchestrations may no longer exist, but that hasn’t stopped them in the past.

Photo: Joan Marcus

  • Camille

    Thanks for Erda’s Warnung!

  • Brackweaver

    Thanks for the review. I’ve always wondered what The Golden Apple would be like on stage. The recent 2 CD recording (first complete recording) is well done but as a musical piece it doesn’t grab me. It comes off a bit twee.

  • Rosina Leckermaul

    I disagree strongly with this review. Saw it on the final performance Sunday afternoon. From the mezzanine 90% of the lyrics came through. There is no way you could do justice to this big score in a small Off-Broadway theatre. The Phoenix, where the show was first produced, was a Broadway-size house, though it was down on Second Avenue and 12th Street, not a 199 seat Off-Broadway theatre. The show takes a big orchestra and chorus. Most aficionados of Encores productions know to wait until the weekend to see the show--it takes a while to gel given the short rehearsal period. I am deeply grateful to Encores for giving us such a fine realization of this great score. Please record it!!!!! The only complete recording is pretty dire.

  • John Yohalem

    On reflection (and an additional performance), one thing about The Golden Apple that strikes me (and has not struck me before) is the similarity of mood and style to the original Candide. At the time Golden Apple first reached the stage (Latouche and Moross had written it in ’49-50 but understandably had trouble finding backers), Latouche and Bernstein and Lillian Hellman were putting their heads together to invent Candide, similarly an opera-musical hybrid derived from a classic. (Bernstein grew exasperated with Latouche’s dilatory writing habits and replaced him with Richard Wilbur. Hellman brought on her pal Dorothy Parker, who wrote about one couplet.)

    The rather heartless nature of the story (we thoroughly enjoy Helen, but does anybody like her? and Ulysses’ motivations to roam are neither clear nor admirable) and the cynical observations of different societies and all humanity are cut from similar cloth.

    But Candide succeeds with audiences (though it took a decade or two of cult status) and Golden Apple has always remained in the shadows. Why is that? I am inclined to credit the excellence of the OBC (the Golden Apple OBC is great fun but gives little idea of the show it represents) and the quality of Bernstein’s score, which reaches out to an American public and successfully, pleasurably papers over the cynicism with emotional melody (the Overture, Glitter and Be Gay, Easily Assimilated, Eldorado and, best of all, Make Our Garden Grow) in a forthright, overhwhelming way that Golden Apple, with all its wit and piquancy, fails to equal.

    There is no big emotional climax sweeping away all doubt — that seems to be what Moross is aiming for in the concluding Ulysses-Penelope duet, but he does not achieve it. The story of Candide also peters out with the finale, but the music accomplishes here what no libretto achieves. This is what puts Candide in the familiar repertory (to excess, methinks) and Golden Apple hasn’t got it.

    • Rosina Leckermaul

      I thought the final duet was beautiful and an appropriate ending. Unlike CANDIDE, which ends with a big ensemble, THE GOLDEN APPLE ends quietly and sweetly. Yes, it’s the usual affirmation of the heterosexual union as panacea. I did think of the end of CANDIDE as Silverman and Bennett sang the final duet.
      I like CANDIDE and have seen it many times. Parts of it always seem overblown to me. Both it and GOLDEN APPLE are more wit than heart. I think of Moross’s score as kind of Americana Rossini.