Saturday, May 13, 2017

New Musical Revivals—“The Golden Apple” at Encores!; Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures” at Classic Stage Company

The Golden Apple
Music by Jerome Moross; written by John Latouche; directed by Michael Berresse
Performances May 10-14, 2017
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

Pacific Overtures
Book by John Weidman; music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim 
Directed and designed by John Doyle
Performances through June 18, 2017
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY

Ryan Silverman and Mikaela Bennett in The Golden Apple (photo: Joan Marcus)
The Golden Apple is the kind of musical Encores! was made for: an almost forgotten show that ran off-Broadway in 1954, then transferred to Broadway—the first musical ever to do so—only to close after a few months. Now, for all of us who’ve never seen or heard it in the ensuing 60-plus years, it’s back for a few performances.

Most noteworthy is Jerome Moross’s beguiling, sung-through score, closer in spirit to operetta (and opera) than your garden-variety Broadway musical. The infectious and witty songs are in a variety of styles within the Moross’s distinctly Americana vernacular; John Latouche’s accompanying lyrics run the gamut from solid to stolid, with clever and welcome tongue-in-cheek rhymes. But Latouche takes the heroic Greek myths of The Odyssey and The Iliad and, by transplanting them to the year 1898 during the Spanish-American War in the fictional town of Angel’s Roost in Washington State, makes them utterly ridiculous.

Luckily, the story’s silliness doesn’t derail the show:  Michael Berresse’s adroit staging—the usual Encores! mix of concert and full production—features Allen Moyer’s droll sets, William Ivey Long’s sassy costumes, and Joshua Bergasse’s lively choreography for the many dance sequences. Moross’s songs are given full-voiced loveliness by newcomer Mikaela Bennett, as Penelope; she belies her inexperience—this is the Juilliard student’s first professional production—with a powerful but not show-offy voice and a scary heaping of stage confidence. 

Lindsey Mendez, an amusing Helen, steals scenes right and left while giving a beautiful rendition of the show’s solo standout, “Lazy Afternoon.” Ryan Silverman’s robust Ulysses joins Bennett’s Penelope for Moross’s romantic duets, “It’s the Going Home Together” and the finale “We’ve Just Begun.” The non-singing Barton Cowperthwaite dances up a storm as Paris, a hot-air balloon traveling salesman who kidnaps Helen.

Rob Berman and his Encores! orchestra give Moross’s charming music the best possible platform, but an inane plot and large cast make The Golden Apple a doubtful Broadway revival any time soon.

Geroge Takei (center) in Pacific Overtures (photo: Joan Marcus)
Pacific Overtures was made for Broadway: its huge cast and expansive storyline about the opening of Japan (starting with the 1853 landing of American Commodore Matthew Perry) need a big stage to house Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s problematic but thought-provoking show exploring the fallout of the West’s introducing the East to “progress.”

Unfortunately, John Doyle—who tinkers with everything he touches, usually Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, Company, Passion) and opera (his disastrous Peter Grimes at the Met)—has downsized Pacific Overtures in its staging and its music, which reduces it to a highlights performance with tantalizing bits of pointed commentary strewn throughout its intermissionless 85 minutes. 

Doyle’s spare but evocative visuals—the stage splits through the audience like an unfurling scroll—are complemented by his suggestive blocking, as the ten performers mimic stylized Japanese movements. But why Doyle has cut several songs—including those that make a strong case for the show’s musical supremacy among Sondheim aficionados—and instead kept a more obvious satirical rant like “Please Hello,” in which stereotypically arrogant Western representatives convince the Japanese to bow to their cultural superiority, is puzzling.

In a generally fine cast, George Takei’s stately presence as The Reciter stands out. Too bad Doyle’s unfocused production reduces a provocative piece of theater—with a punning title (taken directly from Commodore Perry) that speaks volumes about its intentions—to a stale deconstruction mistaking poverty for intimacy. One awaits Doyle’s next move with increased trepidation.

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