Filichia Features: The Apple Tree, Part One

Filichia Features: The Apple Tree, Part One

By Peter Filichia on January 06, 2017

Spring cleaning? I don’t wait for it, but always start the new year by excavating piles of papers that I should have thrown out years ago.

So on January 1, what did I find under a pile under a pile under the kitchen sink? An obituary for Tom Kneebone in the December 1, 2003 edition of Toronto’s The Globe and Mail.

Never heard of Kneebone? In 1973, he and Dinah Christie co-starred and co-staged a Canadian production of The Diary of Adam and Eve – a Bock-and-Harnick musical usually done as the first of three musicals collectively known as The Apple Tree.

And they had a great idea how to do it.

They also had great material. The charming mini-musical is based on a fanciful Mark Twain story that tells how Adam and Eve related to each other when they met.

(Not well, in fact.)

The Diary of Adam and Eve has one of the best opening jokes of all musicals. When the curtain rises, we see Adam sleeping. The Voice of God then demands “Adam, wake up” – to which Adam responds “Just give me five more minutes.” Right away, we can relate to this character.

Soon Eve enters. That The Apple Tree opened in 1966 was fortuitous, for feminism was rising to the fore and the musical has decided feminist bent. Woman is constantly shown to be smarter than man with better verbal skills and keener eyes and soul that appreciates beauty and culture that he cannot.

On the other hand, once God thrusts the pair into the real world, Adam’s better at building a hut.

His hut. On a rainy day, he takes refuge in it – and wants to be alone. His Adamant attitude so upsets Eve that she begins (as he puts it) “raining” too. To stop what we more accurately call “tears,” he lets her in. No sooner has Eve sat down than she’s asking Adam why he chose brown as his décor.

Adam’s is less interested in interior design than he is in humor. “Why did the chicken cross the road?” he asks, and after he gives the classic “get-to-the-other-side” punch-line, she’s mystified at his uncontrollable laughter. And just as you think that’s the extent of the joke, you encounter a real stroke of comic genius – for Adam stops laughing, shrugs and matter-of-factly says “Well, I guess you had to be there.”

Obviously Adam had to be there when Eve conceives. Adam neither understands what happens when she gives birth or what it is that she’s delivered. “It's a Fish,” he decides “though on occasion it says ‘Goo.’” (I’m smiling; aren’t you?)

And exactly why does Adam believe it’s a fish? “‘Cause it surrounds itself with water almost every chance it gets.”

“It’s a Fish” also advances the action, which is what most musical theater songs are expected to do. Here Sheldon Harnick makes nine months pass in a mere three lines when Adam sings “And though I’ve hunted far and wide while Eve has hardly stepped outside, I’ll be damned if she didn’t catch another.”

As time goes on, Adam becomes accustomed to Eve’s face and loves her as much as she’s always loved him. What has been an amusing show unexpectedly becomes a moving one.

“Sounds terrific,” you say, “but what about that Garden of Eden? I can’t afford a set that will make the audience go ‘Ooooooh!’ as soon as the curtain is raised.”

That’s not necessary. Tony Walton designed an elaborate set for the original production, but once director Mike Nichols put Alan Alda (Adam), Barbara Harris (Eve) and Larry Blyden (Snake) on it, he said that he couldn’t find the actors on it. He made Walton design a much simpler, virtual-non set with a ladder, a few shrubs, a makeshift hut and – need I add? – an apple tree. You can get by with just about as much -- or even less.

So in the aforementioned Canadian production, Kneebone played Adam, Christie portrayed Eve – and who slithered on as the Snake? Why, Kneebone – for the two collaborators noticed that the only scene in which Snake appeared was one in which Adam didn’t.

You can call it “saving a salary,” and while that’s true, this interpretation did add a whole new layer to the show. Considering that Eve dearly loved Adam, wouldn’t she be attracted to someone who resembled him? Kneebone had a different hairstyle and costume, but Eve still fancied the face she faced.

Even if you do spring for three actors, you’ll find that The Apple Tree offers some easy solutions to mounting a musical. Come back next Friday and learn more about the other two-thirds of this wonderful musical.

Read more Filichia Features. 

You may e-mail Peter at pfilichia@aol.com. Check out his weekly column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com. His book, The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.