PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Apple Tree — Onward Kristin Soldier

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Apple Tree — Onward Kristin Soldier
 
Alan Alda made a giant leap for mankind Dec. 14, graduating from Man — the first man, Adam — in 1966's The Apple Tree to The Voice of God, Who begins the revival of this sprightly Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick-Jerome Coopersmith musical at Roundabout's Studio 54.
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"That's the one thing that really tickled me tonight —because I didn't expect it," admitted Harnick as he ambled east a couple of blocks on West 54th to his opening-night party-in-progress at the Hilton Hotel. "When I heard that at the beginning, I thought, 'That's terrific. [Director] Gary Griffin got Alan Alda to be The Voice of God.' That was lovely."

Harnick could have been traveling by cloud, so elated was he over the evening's entertainment, which came in two acts and three stories, each reporting on the battle of the sexes through the years — from Adam and Eve (via Mark Twain's "The Diary of Adam and Eve") to Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley (via Jules Feiffer's "Passionella"), punctuated by a little visit to pagan, if not downright DeMillian, Rome (via Frank R. Stockton's "The Lady or the Tiger?"). Although Coopersmith got "additional book material" credit, the bulk of the book was done by composer Bock and lyricist Harnick, and they are the ones who tweaked and cobbled and brought it up to 2006 speed. The reason the show isn't done more — this is its first Broadway revival — is the scarcity of Barbara Harrises on the open market. Harris took the Tony for this handily for what is still regarded as an unduplicable comedic triumph, and the lingering legacy of it is that it has successfully scared away any brash newcomers from even thinking about attempting it. However, Kristin Chenoweth, one year old at the time The Apple Tree opened, is a Mighty Mouse in the musical-comedy field, with Sparkle Plenty to spare, and she has taken up the gauntlet and run with it — into the waiting arms of adoring critics.

She made a flying run at the show in City Center's "Encores!" with Malcolm Gets and Michael Cerveris for five sold-out performances, and the cheers over her work pretty much screamed this revival into existence. This round, Brian d'Arcy James is her Adam, and Marc Kudisch is her snake. Griffin directed both editions — inventively.

"It was a tough act to follow," conceded Bock, "Until Kristin was free to do it, and it became a dream come true. This just blossomed with every rehearsal into previews. We were involved all the way. It was great to do that again. Life does begin at 40, I guess."

In Harnick's view, the revival succeeds better than the original in its second story, sending up sword-and-sandal sagas. "She's wonderful in it. And it's so elegant what John Lee Beatty [sets], Jess Goldstein [costumes] and Donald Holder [lighting] have done. They've taken it very seriously in that respect. Their work is exquisite, gorgeous. "That's the only piece that remains pretty much as it was," said Harnick. "There are new lyrics. There's a new lyric for Eve in 'What Makes Me Love Him' — and some place else."

The golden girl of the moment, Broken Arrow, OK's own Kristin Chenoweth, made a stylish and fashionable entrance in the Hilton's second floor Sutton Complex. She practically radiated with happiness about the evening. "It far exceeded anything I could possibly have dreamed," she beamed. "I've never been more challenged in my life."

The only thing that would have completed the picture for her were her parents, but "they're coming in for my Met concert in January [the 19th] so they'll see the show then."

Most people are going to remember her taking daffiness to dizzying heights as a wanton princess in the second story, but the first is, personally, the first with her. "Oh, I love the Adam and Eve story," she admitted. "It's such a delicate piece. It's a play, really."

Kristin arrived hand-in-hand with writer Aaron Sorkin, who wrote her into his series, "The West Wing." He has written Chenoweth — as a character — into his latest TV series, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," and assigned Sarah Paulson to play the part.

These days Sorkin is a man of many mediums — including, for the first time since A Few Good Men hit Broadway in 1989, theatre. "When I left 'West Wing,' I took three years off to write a play, a movie and a new TV series. The TV series is 'Studio 60.' The movie is 'Charlie Wilson's War,' which is shooting right now with Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman. We're in about our seventh week of photography. Mike Nichols is directing. And I have a play that starts rehearsing in four weeks at La Jolla that Des McAnuff is directing, and we hope to bring it in in the fall. It's called The Farnsworth Invention. It's about the guy who invented television and the struggle he had with David Sarnoff. We'll run until March 25 and then, hopefully, come in in the fall."

On Kudisch's arm was his longtime main-squeeze, Shannon Lewis, who came in from the road specifically for his opening. "I'm on the Pippin tour right now," she explained. "Mickey Dolenz is playing Charlemagne, Jonathan Banks is our Pippin, and Andrew Ward is our Leading Player. We've been out for three months, and we end in January."

Kudisch, a former beau of Chenoweth, makes a great snake — and enjoys the compliment. "I appreciate that because all the characters I play here — whether it be the balladeer in the second act or the narrator in the third — they're all snakes. The show's not about temptation. It's about the choices we make while tempted — that's what it's about.

"I love all three of the characters that I play. I think the point of the character is: no matter what the skin, a snake is a snake. A snake sheds his skin and sheds his skin and sheds his skin — but a snake is a snake. Even if they totally change characters and totally change relationships, the point of the show is: No matter who you are or what the relationship, temptation is temptation — and the choices you make are the choices you make."

The dashing d'Arcy James (expected to be Young Frankenstein, and again with Chenoweth, in the new Mel Brooks musical) plays well in the sandbox with his leading lady. "I'm having the time of my life," he said. "It's so bubbly that every night going to work is a joy for me. It's a lot of fun. It truly is because the show is so unique. To get to do all these different characters — and to share the stage with Kristin and Marc and everybody else in it, it's been a very smooth experience."

"Everybody else in it" consists of eight dancers out of nowhere— four boys, four girls — and Walter Charles, who doubles as the heroine's royal father in the second sketch and the heroine's producer employer in the third. "The most I have to do is the king, of course, but what I like more is the little producer scene. Kristin loves that scene as well."

The veteran performer is conspicuously overqualified for his slim pickins but, otherwise, happy with his lot. "I just wear these different hats, and I have a wonderful time. They're treating me very well, and I got wonderful billing. Working with these people has really been a joy. Brian d'Arcy James, I knew. We'd worked in Follies. Marc Kudisch played my son at Goodspeed in Shenandoah in '94, the 20th anniversary production. The only one of the leads I hadn't work with was Kristin, and it's like I've known her all my life. She's an angel, a great trouper, and I haven't seen talent like this in many, many a moon. She's a Star. There isn't anything she can't do. She shines. It's like they wrote it for her."

As he was in the "Encores," the inestimable Rob Fisher is waving his baton to beat the band. "Actually, I have a nice view," he contended. "I get to see them sing — up close."

Numbering among the first nighters were Anne Kaufman Schneider, Jim and Julie Dale (preparing to holiday in Mexico), songsmith Maury Yeston (taking a brief holiday from his Death Takes a Holiday), Jerry Stiller, Olivia d'Abo, Garrison Keillor, Margaret Colin, director Scott Ellis and choreographer Rob Ashford (getting ready to hoist Curtains at the Al Hirschfeld), Dee Hoty with Actors' Equity president Mark Zimmerman, playwright Lynn Nottage, Sara Gettelfinger, Tony winners Jane Krakowski and Marian Seldes, Stephen Lang with daughter Lucy, Mario Cantone and those Jersey Boys Boswells, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice.

When asked what they were doing these days, Neil Simon and Moises Kaufman said the exact three words you want them to say: "A new play." Called? "I didn't call it yet — I'm just still writing it," smiled Simon. Kaufman was equally parsimonious with the particulars but said "we'll probably start it at the Arena Stage in D.C. next year."

Joe Masteroff, who provided a lovely book for Bock and Harnick's She Loves Me, said he was "almost involved" in The Apple Tree. "Years ago, they wanted me to write it, but it was the same year I was writing Cabaret so I couldn't do it. It's a charming piece."

Victoria Clark and Kelli O'Hara, the mother and daughter of The Light in the Piazza, struck a together-again pose for photographers. Clark arrived late from The Agony and the Agony, the new Nicky Silver opus that's having a work-in-progress run at the Vineyard. Silver actually performs in the piece (which Agony is uncertain), and Clark was trilling like a star was born. "Ohmigod, he's such a fantastic co-star, so hysterical, so much fun to work with." O'Hara is off to Los Angeles for a "Reprise!" of Sunday in the Park with George next month, "then I'm going to come back home and see what's next — maybe a concert at Carnegie Hall in April with the Pops maybe, maybe." The joint must be habit-forming; only a few weeks ago she helped Barbara Cook out with her Carnegie gig. Cook was asked if she could hear distant echoes of She Loves Me in the Apple Tree score. "I didn't notice," she shot back. "I did," chimed in her date, Harvey Evans. Adam Heller, who survived a benefit concert of Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz's Rags on Monday night ("The music was gorgeous. Unfortunately, it was underserved. If anything, it was just a reminder of how terrific that score is."), revealed he was working on an anthology of William Finn songs, Make Me a Song, with Sally Wilfert and Joe Cassidy. "We did it in Hartford, and we're hoping to put it in an Off-Broadway theatre in April."

Erin Dilly was last at the Hilton for the opening night of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. "I'm doing some television work, but mostly I'm just being a mother and that's pretty extraordinary," she said. "I'm here tonight to support my best friend, Kristi. We met 10 years ago at the Guthrie, doing Babes in Arms, and we became best friends basically from the first week we worked together." Dilly's hubby, Steve Buntrock, replaces Donny Osmond next week as Gaston in Beauty and the Beast.

Another of the leading lady's bosom buddies in attendance: Katie Finnernan. "I'm just so excited to see Kristin. We kinda started off together, and it's always so great to see your friends in theatre do so beautifully." Also: Susan Stroman, who set Chenoweth to tapping on Broadway in Steel Pier. The director-choreographer had just spent the day readying her latest Max Bialystock, Tony Danza. "I just rehearsed with him today. He's spectacular. He can really sing, and he can really dance. And he's a real New Yorker. As Mel Brooks always said, 'Max is New York first, and then he's Jewish.' Thing is, he has the energy to do it — he's in great shape — and he understands the comedy, the tone of it."

Next stop: Las Vegas. In January, Stroman starts rehearsing David Hasselhoff (as Roger DeBris!) for a lickety-split version of The Producers. "We got it down to 90 minutes for Vegas. It's a fast show. They want you back at those gaming tables, that's for sure."

A double layer of Grease is keeping director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall really cookin' these days. "I'm working on the Grease TV show and the Grease Broadway show," she said. "We're casting our Danny and Sandy on this 'American Idol'-type TV show for NBC called 'You're the One That I Want.' Then, those two — whoever America votes on — are going to be our Danny and Sandy, and we go into rehearsals in the spring."

"Star Search" having gone the way of "Ted Mack's Amateur Hour," Marshall feels these "American Idol"-type venues are valid in creating stars. "Look at Jennifer ["Dreamgirls"] Hudson. It's a launching ground for new talent. There used to be variety shows to introduce new musical theatre performers to audiences, and they don't exist anymore so now we have these other kinds of outlets to introduce new performers to people."

The wordsmith behind Urinetown and Pig Farm, Greg Kotis, said that when his next opus with composer Mark HollmanYeast Nation — sees the light of stage, it may really be out of town: like the Perseverance Theatre in Alaska.

The Oscar-winning Carradine ("I am, so far," Keith tactfully inserted) attended The Apple Tree as a show of support for d'Arcy James. They were, too briefly, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels together on Broadway.

"I just finished playing at Joe Pub's last night — a concert, all my stuff," said Carradine, who was Oscared for Best Song of 1975 ("I'm Easy" from "Nashville"). "I had planned to do this while Scoundrels was running, but it closed. I'd already talked to the guy so I said, 'Well let's do it anyway,' so I got my old band together and came back from California. We rehearsed a couple of days and did it — about 70 minutes of my own songs."

Tony Walton, who designed the sets for the original Apple Tree, was present, partially anyway. "It was an extraordinary night in terms of stirring up all those memories," he admitted, still a little misty from the exposure. "I just love the score so much. Jonathan Tunick did such an astounding job of orchestrating it." His view of Eden, he noted, was quite different from Beatty's — "just a little more caricatury, but Barbara was a very real Eve, very Earth Mothery. I adore Kristin. That's a pretty tough challenge — to go up against memories of Barbara Harris, who made Barbra Streisand look like an amateur."

Marc Kudisch, Kristin Chenoweth and Brian d'Arcy James take their opening night bows.
Marc Kudisch, Kristin Chenoweth and Brian d'Arcy James take their opening night bows. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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