Veteran University Theatre at N.C. State director Fred Gorelick's valedictory production, a staged-concert version of The Apple Tree, is a smart and stylish affair, as well as a showcase for Sunny Smith and Steven Rausch, two talented young performers who delighted the Sunday-matinee audience (Aug. 20th) with their comic characterizations and their singing. This seldom-seen three-act 1966 musical comedy by the Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me team of composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick is a real treat: a fresh and funny and relatively unfamiliar entertainment that transforms three short stories - "The Diary of Adam and Eve" by Mark Twain, "The Lady or the Tiger?" by Frank L. Stockton, and "Passionella" by Jules Feiffer -into merry musical interludes.
Act I ("The Diary of Adam and Eve") is a whimsical rehashing of the biblical story of a prosaic and somewhat petulant Adam (Steven Rausch) and a precocious and ebullient Eve (Sunny Smith) and a good-looking but devious Snake (Matthew-Jason Willis), who tempts them to eat the Forbidden Fruit. Mentions of the Finger Lakes, Niagara Falls, and Tanawanda place Mark Twain's Eden somewhere in Upstate New York; but the ultimate expulsion from the garden is the same.
Act II ("The Lady or the Tiger?") is tale of oriental intrigue and Forbidden Love between the beautiful but fickle Princess Barbara (Sunny Smith) and the handsome and heroic commoner Captain Sanjar (Steven Rausch), who leads the army of the Princess Barbara's despotic father King Arik (Greg Flowers), who finds all commoners unsuited to woo his daughter. So, when King Arik finally finds out about the secret liaison between Princess Barbara and Captain Sanjar, he arrests the captain, pouts him on trial for his life, and forces him to make a fateful choice.
Act III ("Passionella") is a riotous retelling of the classic fairy tale - Cinderella - with no Wicked Stepmother or Ugly Stepsisters anywhere in sight. This time, poor downtrodden Ella (Sunny Smith) is a sniveling chimney sweep who dreams of being a great big movie star. Matthew-Jason Willis doubles as the sketch's Narrator and Ella's Fairy Godmother, who transforms her into a buxom, platinum-blonde Marilyn Monroe clone named Passionella; Greg Flowers also does double duty as Ella's heartless employer, Mr. Fallible, who automates her chimney-sweep job out of existence, as well as the big-shot Hollywood Producer who bankrolls Passionella's movies; and Steven Rausch cuts a fine figure as Flip, Passionella's dreadlocked Prince Charming.
Sunny Smith is hilarious as Eve, a real smarty pants who is always one step ahead of Adam; as the perverse Princess Barbara, who would rather send her lover to his death than let another woman have him; and as Passionella. Indeed, her breathy Marilyn Monroe impersonation is an absolute scream.
Steven Rausch is also very, very funny as poor, perplexed Adam, whom Eve outsmarts at every turn; as the all-too-trusting Captain Sanjar; and as the swaggering, super-cool, but ultimately clueless Flip.
Matthew-Jason Willis, Smith and Rausch's partner in all three comic skits, is a better comedian than a singer. Indeed, his voice cracks in Act I and he struggles with his Act II songs. But is he ever funny as the wily snake in Act I, the bemused Balladeer in Act II, and the Narrator and Fairy Godmother in Act III.
Greg Flowers also adds some entertaining comic characterizations to Act II and Act II; and Aimee Henderson is amusing as Nadjira, the other woman - and rival for the attentions of Captain Sanjar - that Princess Barbara loathes.
Critically acclaimed director Fred Gorelick orchestrates the action with his usual fine flair for comedy; and a sprightly eight-piece band, led by musical director Julie Florin on piano, performs The Apple Tree score with pizzazz. The minimalist set by technical director and scenic designer David Jensen contains just the right amount of scenery; and lighting designer Terri Janney artfully illuminates the proceedings.
But it is costume designer Lisa Tireman's fabulous costumes - especially Princess Barbara's slinky red gown and Passionella's sexy outfits - that put a real polish on this apple. Challenged with costuming three skits set in drastically different locales and eras, Tireman responds with a pleasing potpourri of styles - some gloriously glamorous, some merely chic and debonair - that help make the current staged concert version of The Apple Tree a musical comedy to remember -and a fitting farewell production for director Fred Gorelick.
University Theatre at N.C. State presents The Apple Tree Wednesday-Saturday, Aug. 23-26, at 8 p.m. in NCSU's Thompson Theatre, corner of Dunn Ave. and Jensen Dr., Raleigh, North Carolina. $14-$16. 919/515-1100 or TTY: 919/515-7371 or http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=22089. University Theatre at N.C. State: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=1654.