The Golden Apple

Light Opera Works

and Pegasus Players

at Cahn Auditorium, Northwestern University

In Not Since Carrie, his chronicle of Broadway’s legendary flops, Ken Mandelbaum calls The Golden Apple “perhaps the most neglected masterwork of the American musical theatre.” He’s only half right. Jerome Moross and John Latouche’s musical comedy/folk opera, which humorously resets Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to 1900s America, is no masterpiece. But it is surely neglected. A critical success in its 1954 off-Broadway premiere, the show fared poorly when transferred to Broadway later that year. Since then it’s been mounted only a handful of times, and the current revival at Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium (which wraps up this weekend) is reportedly the first to use Moross’s full orchestrations.

Though this production reveals The Golden Apple to be a work of considerable charm and craftsmanship, it also demonstrates the reasons for the show’s neglect. Latouche, a facile lyricist whose credits include Paul Robeson’s populist cantata Ballad for Americans and portions of Bernstein’s Candide, conceived the work as a satiric illustration of America’s change from a rural culture to an urban one, dotted with a few jabs at the militaristic mentality. But his funniest material is more literary than political, depending for laughs on the audience’s familiarity with Homer’s epics–a sure way to please the cognoscenti, but no guaranteed ticket to wide popularity.

Latouche’s entirely sung libretto relocates the ancient Greek legend to fictional Angel’s Roost in Washington, a state known for its towering peaks–including a real Mount Olympus–and its golden apples. Helen is the stereotypical farmer’s daughter of every traveling-salesman joke you’ve ever heard; married to sheriff Menelaus, she runs away with Paris, who arrives via hot-air balloon to peddle his “Paris Notions.” Paris judges not a beauty contest but a bake-off between Lovey Mars (Aphrodite), the town spinster Miss Minerva, and the mayor’s wife Mrs. Juniper (a conflation of Jupiter and Juno). Ulysses, a Rough Rider just back from the Spanish-American War, is deputized by Menelaus to bring Helen home: it’s “the principle” of the thing, and besides, Helen and Paris took the china and bric-a-brac with them. Accompanied by his comrades Achilles, Patroclus, Ajax, etc, Ulysses heads off for the city of Rhododendron, “rescuing” Helen and wrecking the town.

In revenge, Rhododendron’s sleazy mayor Hector sends the heroes off on a ten-year bender, featuring comical encounters with the “nympho-ego-dipsomaniac” society dowager Calypso, a Circe without mercy, Scylla and Charybdis as a Gallagher-and-Shean-type vaudeville team, and a tribe of sarong-clad south-seas sirens who invite the men to their “lagoona-goona” in a campy spoof of Dorothy Lamour movies. Meanwhile, Ulysses’ wife Penelope sits and waits, leading sewing bees from her rocking chair (but not fending off a horde of suitors–a facet of the legend whose omission seems strange given its dramatic potential), until her gray-haired husband returns with a renewed sense of family values, expressed in a philosophical choral finale that prefigures (and perhaps helped inspire) Candide’s climactic “Make Our Garden Grow.”

Moross’s setting of Latouche’s clever, well-rhymed verse is skillful and attractive pastiche, but it rarely demonstrates an identity of its own. Known mainly for his sound tracks for Hollywood westerns, in The Golden Apple Moross drew extensively on late-19th-century idioms–folk songs, marches, hoedowns, Stephen Foster ballads, vaudeville and minstrel-show novelty numbers, blues, even a glee-club chorale for the returning Rough Riders: “Oh Theodore, O Theodore / The Roosevelt that we adore.” The result is zesty, sweet, and as American as–well, golden apple pie. But not nearly as nourishing. Except for the bluesy ballad “Lazy Afternoon,” which launched Kaye Ballard’s career when she crooned it in the original production, barely a note of the score bears remembering; Moross comes nowhere near composers like Copland and Gershwin in imposing his own distinctive personality on established popular idioms.

If The Golden Apple has a single stylistic hallmark, it’s one that inhibits rather than broadens its potential: Moross has set virtually every syllable of Latouche’s text to a separate musical note, without an instance that I can recall of the melisma that opera composers use to make their libretti more expressive and to show off the singers’ voices. The result is briskly paced–The Golden Apple is never boring–but ultimately monotonous. Though the principal characters are given different musical styles to convey their personalities, their songs tend to sound very similar–very much in the patter tradition of the music hall. Except for the sultry “Lazy Afternoon,” these songs really require a highly trained, limber-lipped articulation–and if people can’t sing show tunes to themselves, they’re probably not going to remember them.

The Golden Apple is thus unlikely to join Candide in the canon of reclaimed classics, but it can be very entertaining in the right production. Since such a production would be too expensive for most theaters to mount in a long-term engagement, it has fallen to Light Opera Works, whose specialty is presenting limited runs of operettas to a largely presubscribed audience, and Pegasus Players, known among other things for reviving some of Sondheim’s and Ellington’s nonhits, to do the job. With substantial foundation support, the two companies have put together a very solid team, including a well-established creative staff, a full orchestra, and a fine ensemble of singers whose youthfulness nicely suits the lightweight material.

Northwestern University professor Dominic Missimi has directed the show in quintessential old-fashioned presentational style, managing the onstage traffic with bouncy efficiency and prompting laughter with several good sight gags. (Instead of discus throwing, for instance, the soldiers disport themselves in sack races and tug-o’-war, while Ulysses’ ship is represented by a row of men carrying American-flag bunting behind a singing “goddess.”) William Eckart’s set designs, based on the ones he and his late wife Jean created for the original, are cute and cartoonlike and appropriately vaudevillian; Shifra Werch’s wonderful costumes include lovely candy-colored dresses for the women and a hilarious parade of plaid suits for Ulysses and his fellow duded-up rubes in the second act. Lawrence Rapchak’s crisp conducting brings out the score’s sparkling colors and playfulness, almost allowing us to forget its lack of originality.

The singers display generally fine voices; baritone Scott Cheffer is a forceful Ulysses despite his Alfalfa haircut, Culver Casson achieves moments of real emotional power as the left-behind Penelope, and Christine Janson has a nice vampy turn as Helen, singing “Lazy Afternoon” to dancer Samuel Franke’s pantomimed Paris as she rips off his shirt, leaving him bare-chested except for a starchy cardboard collar. These and other strong soloists are supported by an excellent chorus, who achieve under Dennis Northway’s fine direction a rich sound and almost impeccable articulation.

The fine singing and orchestral playing go a long way toward making The Golden Apple seem a better score than it is; I suspect that in a smaller production, with just a few singers and a synthesizer-dominated band, the music would sound much more bland. This “neglected masterwork” isn’t strong enough musically to take a place alongside other folk operas like Down in the Valley and The Ballad of Baby Doe, much less displace other versions of the same Greek legends, like Offenbach’s La Belle Helene and Berlioz’s Les Troyens. And it lacks the tunefulness that assures other pieces of Americana like Oklahoma! and The Music Man a permanent place in the musical-theater repertoire. Even within the genre of hybrid musical theater/opera, The Golden Apple is a rarity and will probably remain so. But for admirers of the form, this weekend’s performances are must-see viewing.