Monday, May 3, 2010

Picking At The Apple Tree

In Tandem’s New Musical Is Fun with Only A Few Bruises

By Russ Bickerstaff
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In Tandem Theatre closes its season with a production of The Apple Tree—a mid-to-late-‘60’s Sheldon Harnick/Jerry Bock musical triptych dedicated to the idea that one should be careful what one wishes for. Georgina McKee and Luke Leonhardt play male and female leads in three different stories. The stories are tied together with interstitial bits written for the stage by local playwright Neil Haven involving a couple trying to get their daughter to sleep by telling her stories. Haven’s work isn’t particularly accomplished here, but it does the trick of tying the three mini-musicals together quite nicely.

Chris Flieller’s set design for the show is remarkably clever. A giant open book forms the backdrop  for the production. Different backgrounds appear as the vast, wooden pages of the book are turned to represent a child’s bedroom, the Garden of Eden, a tiny apartment and Hollywood. The production flits quite gracefully across the stage with David Flores and a large group of UWM students joining Leonhardt and McKee in a parade of Pamela J. Rehberg costumes that help establish the setting.

Based on Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam And Eve the initial mini-musical features Leonhardt and McKee in the title roles with Flores as a particularly articulate snake. Flores is particularly good here. Had Flores played the role more sinister, even in subtle shades, it would’ve dragged-down the production. Not much is asked of Leonhardt and McKee here, but they manage to draw enough sympathy to keep the short interesting even as everything about the the style of music and comedy feels hopelessly caught in 1967. The style may feel unappealingly dated, but McKee and Leonhardt give enough genuine emotion to the characters to keep it interesting.

Based on Frank Stockton’s The Lady or The Tiger?, the second short tells the story of a Princess (McKee) who is in love with a military Captain. Angered over her love for him, he is given a choice between two different doors. If he chooses the wrong door, there’s a tiger waiting for him on the other side. If he chooses the right door, he will survive, but it might not be what he wants . . . It’s a nice enough premise and the setting allows for a much larger cast than the one present in Eden. The forbidden love story presented here isn’t terribly engrossing and there’s only so much that Leonhardt or McKee can do to make it interesting. The UWM students really keep this one from being as dull as it might otherwise be, providing a big enough human backdrop to make the second short entertaining.

The final short is based on a short story by Jules Feiffer. Written in 1957, it tells the story of a chimney sweep (McKee) who dreams of being a Hollywood star. While watching TV at home after work, a “Friendly Neighborhood Godmaother,” grants her wish, which turns out to be something other than she expected. The dreams of a 1950’s-style Hollywood are updated a bit with references specific to the current situation in Hollywood, but the nature of fame has changed so much in the past half century that the short ends up feeling more quaint than contemporary. That being said, Amie Losi’s choreography does a pretty good job of establishing the glamour of a mid-twentieth century Hollywood. The big success here, however, is McKee in the title role. As a chimney sweep named Ella (the second Ella of the season for In Tandem) McKee is called on to sing and dance in a way that makes it totally apparent that she could never possess the grace of a Hollywood star. Done the wrong way, this would’ve been positively grating, but McKee masters the art of rendering a character with no musical talent at all and making her seem sweet and charming nonetheless. McKee’s rendering of Ella is probably the single best performance in the production. The first musical to open this month, The Apple Tree will soon be joined by Windfall’s  Sunday In The Park With George and Skylight’s Rent.

In Tandem’s The Apple Tree runs through May 16th at the 10th Street Theatre. Call 414-271-1371 for tickets of visit In Tandem Online.

 

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