Lyric Stage has polished up another forgotten gem of American musical theater. And what a gleaming beauty it is.
The Golden Apple retells The Iliad and The Odyssey in grand comic operatic style, its characters plunked down in 1910 in a small town on Mt. Olympus in Washington. Lyric's sparkling production, cast with 43 of the area's best singer-actors and a pit orchestra of 36, makes it easy to see why some aficionados of vintage musicals are obsessed with this show, an off-Broadway smash in 1954. A transfer to Broadway that same year doomed it. The Golden Apple closed after 125 performances despite rave reviews comparing it favorably to contemporary musical hit Carousel and the older Oklahoma!
It does have the sweep of those classics, though not as many memorable tunes. The only popular song to peel out of Apple was "Lazy Afternoon," a seductive ballad recorded by Barbra Streisand early in her career.
The show's book and lyrics by John Latouche hew closely, perhaps too loyally for 1950s audiences to parse, to Homeric legends about the Trojan War and its heroes and heroines. Penelope, played nicely at Lyric by operatic soprano Kristen Lassiter, is made into a pure-hearted small-town girl, fending off suitors by sewing a massive quilt. Her love, Ulysses (Casa Mañana star Christopher J. Deaton, in fine vocal and physical fettle), returns from the Spanish-American War only to depart again to battle big city huckster Hector (James Williams). Old Menelaus (Andy Baldwin, hilarious as always) is a leering lech who loses flirty young wife Helen (Danielle Estes) to handsome "notions" salesman Paris (Hayden Clifton, a Fosse-esque dancer whose sexy character never sings or speaks). Homer's goddesses are translated into clucking busybodies (Janelle Lutz, Jenny Tucker, Sarah Powell, in perfect harmony). The wild-haired fortune teller (Deborah Brown) keeps whipping a crystal ball out of her knapsack to predict dire futures for them all.
It's a massive show, one reason theaters haven't done it, except for a few smaller-scale productions here and there, over the past six decades. Lyric's, directed with admirable precision and brisk energy by Stefan Novinski, marks the first full-out, fully orchestrated revival since the Broadway demise of the original in 1954. Choreography by John de los Santos creates beautiful images here, as when Helen croons "Lazy Afternoon" on her back to Paris as he drags her by her outstretched ankle across the stage floor.
The first act of Golden Apple sets the quaint mood of The Music Man, with polite citizens of Angel's Roost, Washington, singing pretty songs that use funny old words like "galoot" and "jamboree." Then Paris alights from a hot air balloon, dances like the devil around the ladies and makes off with Ado Annie-like Helen. Away go Ulysses and his crew to get Helen back from the wicked city, where the journey home is thwarted by encounters with sexy Circe (lissome dancer Lissie K. Mays) and the island Sirens, plus a couple of con men named Scylla and Charybdis, and the temptress Calypso.
Jerome Moross' music delivers two and a half hours of a soaring, sung-through pastiche of folky chorales, operatic solos, vaudeville patter, waltzes and haunting ballads. Critics in 1954 heard influences of the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, Leonard Bernstein's Candide and Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring.
Latouche's lyrics aren't as sophisticated as the melodies, rhyming "century" with "wenchery" and having soldiers lustily singing "Theodore, Theodore, the Roosevelt that we adore." But director Novinski and musical director Jay Dias keep the musical tempos at a reasonable speed, which helps us decipher all those words in songs we've never heard before. The lead singers' diction on the rapid rush of lyrics is across-the-board impeccable. (Speaking of myths, it must've been a Herculean task for the cast to learn all this unfamiliar music in only a few weeks of rehearsal.)
The magic of The Golden Apple lies not just in the charm of its storytelling — there's a reason The Odyssey is still read 3,000 years on — but in the sheer size of the thing. They don't make gigantic American musicals like this anymore on Broadway. They can't afford to.