Drexel University’s Co-op Theatre Co. and the Drexel Players performed “The Apple Tree,” a playful musical of three acts, Nov. 21-24. They did a wonderful job of transporting the award-winning 1966 piece by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Jerome Coopersmith from Broadway to The Mandell Theater. Like the rest of the Co-op Theatre’s season, the musical was selected in cooperation with students who received performing arts scholarships.
The participants come from a variety of backgrounds. “We have a bunch of entertainment & arts management students always working with us, but we have engineers, we have scientists; … [t]hey come from all over campus,” director Bill Fennelly, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Performing Arts, said. “The arts shows are open to anyone on campus.” Even for students outside of the arts, the musical counts as a practicum and provides elective credit.
Opening night was the culmination of thousands of man-hours of work. The run time was shortened to add an extra week of rehearsal, and much was expected of the students. “They put in hundreds of hours on this. … I mean, it’s somewhere between 20 and 25 hours of rehearsal a week on top of their classes,” Fennelly said.
Senior design & merchandising major Danielle Brief testified to this: “We pretty much lived in the theater during tech week. Some actors even napped, showered and ate meals backstage. … The level of teamwork, trust and dedication that went into this show was so high because of the strong foundation we built during the intense rehearsal process,” she wrote in an email. This will likely be her last production. “It’s great to be a senior and lead the new members of our theater family and pass on traditions, but it’ll be really sad to leave this community in a few months.” She has several roles as a member of the ensemble, including cheerleader, news reporter and cigarette girl.
“‘The Apple Tree’ felt like it would be a fun project for us to work on,” Fennelly said about the initial choice to put it on the schedule. It did not disappoint.
Act I is the tale of humanity’s beginning in the Garden of Eden. It principally features three characters: Adam (Vince Giannone), Eve (Sophie Hirsch) and the Snake (Corey Fedorowich). Clocking in at about an hour, it is a slow-paced treatment of the development of Adam and Eve’s relationship based on a collection of stories by Mark Twain. It runs from the creation of Adam through the expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Eve’s eventual death — which is perhaps the most memorable scene of this act.
The writing is sweet and at times comedic. Though the jokes’ sexist tone betrays their origin in the ‘60s, the audience received them with laughter. The lighting and music work well together to set the epic scope of the first humans’ reluctant love story. This contrasts the rather simplistic costumes and decor, which take an effective no-more-than-necessary approach. Giannone and Hirsch perform and sing well and achieve a good dynamic with each other, though they are upstaged by Fedorowich’s dazzling performance in “Forbidden Fruit.”
After a 10-minute intermission, Fedorowich introduces the plot of Act II as the Balladeer. The reimagining of Frank R. Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger?” takes place in a barbaric kingdom, though you wouldn’t know it from the costumes; designer Lauren Perigard dresses the cast in elaborate high school-themed outfits. Princess Barbara (pronounced as “barbaric,” played by Georgie Manera) wears a prom dress, Captain Sanjar (Giannone) is captain of the football team, and King Arik (Dean Bloomingdale) wears a gorgeously tacky red-white-and-blue suit, complete with a 10-gallon hat and holstered dueling pistols. They are supported by a crowd of cheerleaders and football players who attempt a bold but slightly unsynchronized dance. Like the first act, this is a love story. The royal Barbara has a secret affair with commoner Sanjar, which, as Arik proclaims upon its discovery, is a “sin against the gods.”
Very different from Act I, this story is told at a merry pace and with a vaudevillian variety of music. There is the bombastic “Make Way,” the entrancing “Lady/Tiger Vignettes,” and the romantically dramatic “Forbidden Love” — the last of which is interrupted by a cheesy song about the beautiful life that Sanjar and Barbara plan to have together. The performance is certainly impressive, and the orchestra is able to meet the high requirements, but it does detract from the seriousness of the plot. However, the intense final scene more than makes up for this minor shortcoming. In a brightly lit arena, Barbara must decide Sanjar’s fate — will he be mauled by a tiger, or will he marry another woman? The act ends on that question from the Balladeer: “The lady or the tiger, which did she choose?”
Act III, connected to acts I and II by nothing more than its theme, brings us to the modern era. In this adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s “Passionella,” New York chimney sweep Ella (Hirsch) wants nothing more than, “Oh, To Be a Movie Star.” Hirsch, who beautifully makes Ella’s voice sound awful in the way that only real singers can, makes it clear that the girl is not cut out for the job. But the charming Narrator (Fedorowich) helps out, magically transforming her into the glamorous and outrageously buxom Passionella (Camilla Kronenwetter). She finds success as a Hollywood actress but can only be Passionella between the six o’clock news and the late-night show. Additionally, she is not content. Her only love interest, Flip the handsome and rebellious teen icon (Nikhil Sridhar), wants her to be “real.” After she is cast as a chimney sweep in her latest film, which is shot during the day, the two hook up and are revealed to both be the product of the Narrator’s magic. They become an adorable, entirely ordinary couple and live happily ever after.
The set and costumes do a wonderful job of portraying both glitzy Hollywood and Ella’s depressing life as a chimneysweep, but there is a thematic inconsistency. Chimneysweep Ella would not be out of place in “Mary Poppins,” while Hollywood seems to live in the ‘40s or ‘50s. The lighting crew does a better job, making good use of spotlights and creatively simulating photography flashes. In contrast to Act II, the orchestra is not too memorable. Act III does feature some of the best acting of the play, with the Narrator, Passionella and dark-horse talent Flip all trying to steal the show.
On the whole, “The Apple Tree” was very enjoyable. The acts were tied together only loosely, but each was enjoyable in its own right. The cast, orchestra and production team have made something to be proud of.
“I have to say, this is the best run-through that we’ve had,” Fennelly said to his cast after the dress rehearsal. On opening night, he must have repeated himself.