After years of requests from diehard fans, City Center’s Encores! finally put up, on May 10–14, a staged concert of the 1954 musical The Golden Apple. It drew a mixed response, which wasn’t surprising: The show, by librettist John Latouche and composer Jerome Moross, has been drawing mixed responses since it opened at Off-Broadway’s Phoenix Theatre, on March 11, 1954, where it triggered enough critical enthusiasm to transfer, a month later, to Broadway’s Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon), where, critical enthusiasm notwithstanding, it expired thanks to sparse ticket sales after a mere 125 performances. For years, a single-disc LP of excerpts from its substantial, sung-through score was all that kept the show’s reputation alive. (There was no recording of the complete score until a 2-CD set of a semi-professional production, at Dallas’s Lyric Stage, was released in 2015.)
That reputation was worth keeping alive, as the Encores! production, directed by Michael Berresse, firmly demonstrated. Many reviewers referred to The Golden Apple as a “cult” musical, but that isn’t precisely its category. Musicals that just miss becoming successes can develop a cult following, as can musicals with outré, limited-appeal themes, or those so openly disastrous that they attract the kind of theatergoers eager to witness a train wreck.
The Golden Apple, bursting with imagination and streaked with brilliance, is quite a different matter. It sets its face daringly, almost defiantly, against all conventional ideas of musical-theater success and toys outrageously with the form’s usual expectations. It breeds lasting love and awestruck admiration, particularly among practitioners: If you want to learn what can be achieved in the musical theater, you need to know The Golden Apple. But you also need to know that it will never be a success. Like the novelist hero of Henry James’s short story “The Next Time,” who keeps turning out masterpieces but can never create a bestseller, The Golden Apple embodies the ineffable something that a failure is but that a success somehow isn’t.
The show’s outrageousness starts with its mocking approach to a story of widespread, long-lasting appeal: Into the folksy framework of an early-1900s rural America, Latouche inserted narrative fragments of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The boys of Angel’s Roost, an imaginary small town in Washington State (conveniently located near its Mount Olympus), get home from the Spanish-American War just in time to watch the town’s sexually adventurous Helen (Lindsay Mendez), lately married to rich old Menelaus (Jeff Blumenkrantz), run off to the big city in a balloon with a traveling salesman, “Mr. Paris, of Paris Notions, Inc.” (Barton Cowperthwaite). Naturally, the local bigwigs talk the boys into rescuing her and avenging the honor of Angel’s Roost. So, in Act Two, led reluctantly by clever Ulysses (Ryan Silverman), they march off to the bustling city of Rhododendron, where, once they’ve recaptured Helen and sent her packing, shifty Mayor Hector (Jason Kravitz) persuades them to stick around and see the sights — a set of traps that will pick them off one by one, until only Ulysses gets to return alive, to his careworn but patient Penelope (Mikaela Bennett).
This summary points to one of the show’s principal flaws: It robs the Homeric epic of power by reducing the Trojan War to a hicks-versus–city slickers squabble, framed ominously between two real wars: the Spanish-American conflict just behind and World War I, the first modern industrial war, looming ahead. Also, by devoting so much of its first act to the backstory of Paris and Helen, it never fully focuses on its main action, the struggle of Ulysses and Penelope to stay together through America’s shift from a semi-rural isolated nation to an urbanized world power. That story, though not well-articulated in plot terms, is The Golden Apple’s mainspring and the source of its imaginative strength.
Act One is a set of interlocking farm-town tableaux — the three goddesses’ competition for the title object becomes a cake-baking contest among the local matriarchs — set by Moross to lushly pastoral melodies that build to a brilliant ensemble finale. Act Two, in contrast, is scored and conceived as a raucous, surreal vaudeville show, with Mayor Hector’s sinister soft-shoe number setting the cynical tone: Scylla and Charybdis as a Gallagher-and-Shean team of commodities brokers, the Sirens as B-girls in a waterfront dive, and so on. Unlike his wavering sense of dramatic focus, Latouche’s verbal invention is unfailing, while Moross’s neat gift for making love to the old forms while simultaneously poking fun at them is there to answer it at every turn.
The issue of tone that that description raises is one of The Golden Apple’s major discomfiting qualities. Though it’s sung throughout, like a “serious” opera, the show’s satiric attitude, freewheeling structure, and nearly cartooned characters give it an old-style musical-comedy quality. It seems to belong to the era of Funny Face and Fifty Million Frenchmen rather than that of The King and I and The Most Happy Fella. At the same time, the evident seriousness of purpose behind Latouche’s mordant wit (“Old men always do the shouting/Young men have to do the shooting”), and the romantic intensity of Moross’s music for Penelope and Ulysses, tend to rebuke the comedy rather than simply offering a respite from it. The Golden Apple will always remain an amazing phenomenon partly because it can never wholly decide what it wants to be.
This tonal indecision seeped into Berresse’s production, despite a substantial amount of fine work. Rob Berman, conducting, tended to hurry the more reflective numbers, while Bennett forced her rich-toned voice as if she thought she were singing Les Troyens. The lack of lightness — except for Mendez, the female principals tended to oversing — was made worse by the notoriously ungainly sound system at Encores!, which made lyrics hard to catch. Some costumes, like those for the Sirens, were odd misfires (William Ivey Long was listed only as “Costume Consultant,” not designer), and Joshua Bergasse’s choreography sometimes seemed cluttered where it needed to be simplest.
Still, Berresse’s staging solved a multitude of problems, given the limited stage space and the short rehearsal period. Large sections of this difficult piece came off effectively. Silverman sang and acted with clarity, as well as power and grace. And the evening’s high point — Helen’s seduction of Paris, with Cowperthwaite leaping about languidly to Mendez’s soulful rendition of the show’s most famous song, “Lazy Afternoon” — was pure musical-theater heaven. And heaven is not a state the musical theater attains easily, even when trifling near Mount Olympus.