Barbershop quartets? What most people know about them is probably limited to The Music Man. Still, they’re jovial company in The Apple Boys, a delightful little musical at the HERE Arts Center, even if they’re not entirely boys. Jack (Jelani Remy), Nathan (Teddy Yudain), Warren (Jonothon Lyons, who wrote the book), and Hank (Amanda Ryan Paige) are turn-of-the-20th-century Coney Islanders, and Jack also happens to be Johnny Appleseed’s grandson. It’s the first in a long line of whimsies, anachronisms, and out-and-out lies that fetchingly tie the loose plot together. Don’t look for cohesive musical storytelling here; The Apple Boys is more of a vaudeville, a vehicle for silliness, quick changes, and most of all, an optimistic spirit that’s noticeably scarce in 2018.
They provide giggles right off, with Jack receiving the unwelcome news from his uncle (Paige) that the Brooklyn family’s apple farm is about to be lost to $5,000 in back taxes. (There were no apple farms in Brooklyn.) Seeking extra help to make a last-ditch harvest-and-deliver effort, Jack hires Hank, who’s just been fired from running the Cyclone (which wasn’t built until 1927, but what the hell); Nathan, who sells hot dogs; and Warren, a sideshow strongman who has to quit while his ankle heals after an unfortunate weightlifting accident.
Their side stories are just as ridiculous, and necessitate as much breakneck role-switching as in The 39 Steps. Hank dreams of designing roller coasters and has some other obscure skills that come in handy at key plot points. Warren has challenged another weightlifter to a rematch. And Nathan wants to rise from a hot dog cart to a store of his own, aided by his loving wife, Ida (Remy). As Jack, Remy is eminently likable; as Ida, he’s a riot. As adenoidal as Edith Bunker and capable of a gender switch so complete you really wonder if he has transsexualized onstage, he epitomizes the whole enterprise’s can-do spirit.
“Now, I don’t know about you fellas,” says Jack, “but I always sing when I work.” So do they, and they sing Ben Bonnema’s winning music and lyrics—some plot-specific and emotion-specific things, but mostly hilarious parodies of century-old pop. There’s a ditty about running over animals while driving, a deranged backhanded salute to the subway, and a plaintive parable about Coney splitting off from Manhattan and drifting down the Verrazzano to become an island. There’s a whole quick string more of them when the boys enter a barbershop contest, sung by competing quartets of nuns (the Sirens of St. Cecilia), hospital workers (the Lymph Notes), and others, notably a nasty foursome from Asbury Park that allows Lyons to let loose with the Jersey jokes. All played, of course, by the same four, furiously changing hats and registers. Rona Siddiqui accompanies them on a deliberately tinny piano and steps in for small roles when four actors isn’t enough.
What is it about this show? The writing’s good but not great, the songs are tremendous fun while they’re happening but not really memorable. David Alpert’s direction, one suspects, has a lot to do with it. He paces it frantically but knows when to give his cast, and the audience, a breather, and he gets maximum impact out of minimum resources. A ladder convincingly becomes a roller coaster (Rui Rita’s lighting helps), and as absurdity piles on absurdity, we just give in. Puns, slapstick, exploitation of old showbiz tropes—and it’s all happy-making.
“Broadway. This is going to Broadway,” gushed an audience member on the way out. Maybe not, but do catch The Apple Boys at HERE if you can. “This entire project was born out of a spirit of collaboration,” says Lyons in an author’s note, and it shows. These three boys and one girl work their butts off, and catch each other’s backs, and smile a lot. So will you.
Heart on Sleeves Productions’ production of The Apple Boys runs through Dec. 23 at HERE (145 Sixth Ave.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets can be purchased by visiting appleboysnyc.com or by calling (212) 352-3101.