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|A CurtainUp Review
The Baker's Wife
By Simon Saltzman
As this is a typical French village during the mid 1930s, the citizenry are occupied with getting their morning croissants, continuing old grudges, gossiping and gathering around the café. It is here that Denise (Gay Marshall), the proprietor’s wife steps forward to set the stage and establish the mood that "nothing is really different" with the lilting "Chanson." The priest (Jamie La Verdiere) is having his daily argument with the school teacher (Mitchell Greenberg) and one neighbor continues his harassment of another neighbor regarding a tree that is shading his spinach patch. Soon everyone is expressing what it is that irritates them the most ("If It Wasn’t For You") -- they haven’t had fresh bread since the baker died a few weeks ago. All get something new to talk about when the new baker arrives with his lovely and much younger wife, whom they mistakenly assume is his daughter.
This much discussed musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Joseph Stein, is based on the 1938 screenplay La Femme du Boulanger by Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giono. It has resurfaced on occasion in concert and in regional venues, including Philadelphia’s Arden Theater in 2001. Visitors to London may have seen Trevor Nunn’s revised staging in 1989.
There is a lot to rejoice in this largely revised, charmingly buoyant and fresh production directed by Gordon Greenberg and starring an irresistibly sensual Alice Ripley in the title role. As the fortunes and misfortunes of The Baker’s Wife have been duly chronicled by CurtainUp's Philadelphia critic (see link), I'll only share with you the pleasure that comes with seeing this romantically whimsical tale that proves that man does not live by bread alone. What there is of a plot – the sexy baker’s wife runs off with a cute chauffeur, the baker stops baking. So the hungry villager find her and bring her home – is discharged with a Gallic-infused insouciance that is utterly beguiling. It’s similarity in ambiance to the film Chocolate, its squabbling, suspicious, petty by-food-and-sex-driven villagers will not go unnoticed.
Whether The Baker’s Wife has, or ever had, the stuff to make it on Broadway is of little concern, as it will assuredly please the Paper Mill Playhouse’s core patrons. Musical theater fans are advised to make it across the Hudson before it ends its run.
While time and temperament has taken its toll on musical tastes and especially musical styles, one can still understand why the The Baker’s Wife score has encouraged continued attention and admiration. Schwartz, a prolific composer (Pippin, Godspell, The Magic Show, The Children of Eden) finally hit the peak of success with his current mega-musical hit Wicked, but, for this listener, his score for The Baker’s Wife remains his best.
The most memorable song is "Meadowlark," an impassioned aria that Genevieve (Ripley) sings as she remembers the legend of the meadowlark and decides to run off with her "beautiful young man." Ripley, whose bright voice has been heard on Broadway in Side Show, The Dead, The Rocky Horror Show and Sunset Boulevard, fills each note of that narrative-driven song with a lyrical intensity that is simply stunning. Impressively, Ripley supplies all the sexy impulses, vocal textures, and even the beguiling tenderness that the role implies.
Although the beautiful Genevieve has been around a block or two, including a previous affair with a married man, her marriage to Amiable and her insecurity among the testy villagers has apparently made her vulnerable to the virile Dominique’s (Max Von Essen) aggressive wooing. Von Essen offers a charismatic presence and a sterling voice to his role as Dominique, wowing the audience with his robust execution of "Proud Lady,"garnished with leaps and jumps à la Douglas Fairbanks.
Wolpe, a favorite at the Paper Mill for his performances in Gypsy, Baby, and The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, gives a performance that is grounded in a genuinely warm and self-effacing honesty. It gets it fullest expression in the exuberant "Merci, Madame," in which he sings of how Genevieve makes him feel younger, and when abandoned, in the ever-so-poignant "If I Have to Live Alone."
Director Greenberg has to be praised emphasizing what is best about the musical, particularly the endearing idiosyncrasies of the villagers in the forefront. Each one shines with specificity, just as each tends to grow with wisdom and tolerance as their concerns for the baker and his wife take precedence over their pettiness. Standout are Richard Pruitt, as Claude, the brusque Cafe proprietor and Laurent Giroux, as the dashing and amusingly amoral Marquis, always in the company of his three “nieces,” played with conjoined comical verve by Mary Mossberg, Julia Osborne, and Jacque Carnahan. When it comes to playing Antoine, the village idiot, Kevin Del Aguila does it with hilarious panache.
Another musical highlight is the "Bread" number in which the villagers, awakened by the whiff of baking bread, begin to appear in the square still in their bed clothes, but ready to party. This is a musical that makes you want to hold on to your loved one, but also head for the nearest bakery.
The Baker's Wife, Philadelphia Review
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