If you go: “The Golden Apple” is at City Center, 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh aves., nycitycenter.org. Through Sunday.
Hamlet, in describing a little-known play to a troupe of traveling actors, famously said that it “pleas’d not the million,‘twas caviar to the general; but it was (as I received it, and others, whose judgments in such matters cried in the top of mine) an excellent play.”
That critical assessment could just as easily apply to “The Golden Apple,” an unusual, daring and unapologetically brilliant 1954 musical by composer Jerome Moross and lyricist John Latouche. After a short Broadway run, it went on to become one the first American musicals to develop a fiercely devoted cult following.
Now, more than two decades since City Center initiated its much-beloved Encores! series, in which rarely-seen musicals are given concert-style productions with a Broadway-caliber cast and the backing of a full orchestra, “The Golden Apple” is finally getting a long-overdue, much-deserved second shot.
It might be no coincidence that the musical’s first full-length recording was released two years ago, bringing it back to the attention of musical theater aficionados.
“The Golden Apple” deftly reinterprets Homer’s epic poems “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” into the context of early 20th century America, depicting Ulysses as a naive and well-meaning farmer, Helen as a bored farmer’s daughter and Paris as a salesman who travels by hot air balloon.
With its speedy pace, sung-through structure (not unlike an opera), balletic interludes, sweeping and rhythmically propulsive score and extremely witty and precise lyrics, “The Golden Apple” could very well have been Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s follow-up to “West Side Story.”
The Encores! staging (directed by Michael Berresse, with Rob Berman conducting) is clean and simple but vibrant and beautifully sung by a fine cast led by Mikaela Bennett (a fourth-year undergrad at Juilliard who plays Ulysses’ long-suffering wife Penelope) plus Broadway talents including Ryan Silverman, Lindsay Mendez, Jeff Blumenkrantz, N’Kenge, Alli Mauzey and Ashley Brown.
Whether “The Golden Apple” grows on you or not, this production shows off the Encores! series at its best, in producing a unique and extraordinary but underappreciated musical that probably would not have otherwise received another major New York production. For all we know, it could take another 60 years for “The Golden Apple” to come back.