Review: One Bad Apple Tree Spoils the Bunch in Porchlight Revisits

Musical theater nerds in Chicago are lucky to have Porchlight Theatre—if the venerable company (now in its 27th year) didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Besides mounting full productions of three separate musicals a year, Porchlight also presents regular concert series highlighting specific years in musical theater history as well as the “Porchlight Revisits” series, which provides an opportunity for audiences to see shows unlikely to get a full revival.

Which brings us to their recent production of The Apple Tree.

Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s follow-up to their super-smash Fiddler on the Roof, 1966’s The Apple Tree lit up Broadway with an incandescent beam named Barbara Harris. In her third (and final) appearance on Broadway, Harris captured all the attention and awards New York theater has to give. The original “manic pixie dream girl,” Evanston and Second City alum Harris brought a special magic to everything she did. Watch her with Jason Robards in A Thousand Clowns or in Robert Altman’s Nashville to see for yourself.

But an Apple Tree without Barbara Harris? Oh … where has the magic gone?

Michael Mejia (Balladeer) in "The Lady or the Tiger?" from Porchlight Revisits The Apple Tree. Photo by Oni Wright.

A three-act show, with each act based on a famous story (Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve, Frank Stockton’s The Lady or the Tiger, and Jules Pfeiffer’s Passionella),The Apple Tree is definitely showing its age.

The first act is perhaps the creakiest. Twain wrote the stories in the first decade of the 20th century, and their “Adam is from Mars, Eve is from Venus” duet of the sexes was outdated when the show premiered in the ‘60s. Today, it is positively prehistoric. (‘Cuz it's Adam and Eve … get it?).

Adam builds a hut … and Eve want to redecorate. Ugh.

I enjoy old shows, and these kinds of timeworn musicals are just what the Revisits series are made for, but this production only highlights the first act’s dust, rather than sweeping it away.

Things improve when the second act opens with the Lady or the Tiger. Michael Mejia brings real charm and charisma to his role of the Balladeer and the songs “I’ll Tell You a Truth,” “Make Way,” and “Forbidden Love,” while not Bock and Harnick’s best, are enjoyable.

The best comes last in act three’s Passionella—a Cinderella story reinvented for the ‘60s TV age. The act has the best character (Passionella) and the best song (“Gorgeous”) in the show. This act also has the best performer, Leah Morrow, as the eponymous dowdy chimneysweep turned movie star. Morrow knows how to deliver both a joke and vocal belt with equal skill.

Porchlight Revisits The Apple Tree has its moments of charm, but on the whole, the production is not up to Porchlight's usual standards.

The next installment of Porchlight Revisits comes February 8 and 9, when they mount a production of John Van Druten’s I Am a Camera, in tandem with its more famous musicalization Cabaret.

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Doug Mose

Doug Mose grew up on a farm in western Illinois, and moved to the big city to go to grad school. He lives with his husband Jim in Printers Row. When he’s not writing for Third Coast Review, Doug works as a business writer.