Port City Playhouse's production of "The Apple Tree," a sometimes playful, sometimes silly three-part musical, can be breezy and fun at times, and its light-as-air mood can lift you with it, coaxing a smile skyward. But it can plummet just as swiftly to earth, weighted down with amateurism, dated material and painful cliches.
"The Apple Tree" was something different when it was introduced on Broadway in 1966. Echoing the simple songs and staging of the earlier and enormously successful "The Fantasticks," the creators were battling what they saw as overdone, long musicals. Their idea was to take short American stories and expand them into mini-musicals. It worked, lasting 463 performances on Broadway, with a legendary roster of contributors, including composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, director Mike Nichols and leads Barbara Harris and Alan Alda. It must have seemed clever then, these skits about life, love and all the complications, coupled with cute songs with such titles as "Oh, To Be a Movie Star" and "Go To Sleep Whatever You Are."
Now, some of it is, but in today's world most of it isn't. The production is divided into three parts, all based on stories: "The Diary of Adam and Eve" by Mark Twain; "The Lady or the Tiger?" by Frank R. Stockton, and "Passionella" by Jules Feiffer. There are some drastic differences among the three, mostly because the world seems to have grown up a lot since then, and much of the material, designed to tickle your fancy, will instead itch at your sensibility.
"The Diary of Adam and Eve" is clearly the weakest. The world's first couple is cast as the cute, bickering marrieds we've always hated. Eve spends her days admiring the flowers, naming animals and being a silly female, and Adam works, builds and sneers at her frivolous behavior. Even the most mild person would be easily offended, and more likely embarrassed, by all this "little woman" hoo-ha. Leads Jerry Hoffman and Susan Himes-Powers don't have much to work with here, but they, too, slow the syrupy proceedings with cloying delivery.
"The Lady or the Tiger?" is a minor revelation after the first act. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, this tale of the thorny decision of a jealous lover is fun to watch as the large cast hams it up. Especially enjoyable is Tom Manger, who lampoons his Tom Selleck looks deftly, all puffed chest, white-teeth smile and macho swagger.
Manger is not so successful in "Passionella," where that behavior seems forced and stiff. He's not the only one to blame here. The rest of the cast seems uncomfortable, let down by material that is about one step below the least funny skits we've become used to on variety shows. It's no surprise, then, when the whole thing degenerates into what seems only to be fun and games on the high school level. But again, the work does offend in a very adult way with its portrayal of a Marilyn Monroe look-alike. When, I wonder, will that tragic woman be allowed to rest in peace without someone pursing her lips, cooing and acting like a brain dead starlet?
Direction by Marge Tischer appears to be kept to a bare minimum, sending most of the action out of control and wasting many of the sweet and endearingly corny moments. It's a shame, because there's something worthwhile in "The Apple Tree." Unfortunately it's a case of a few bad apples spoiling the lot.
The show runs through Saturday.