The Baker's Wife
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
April 17, 2005
It must be spring, because everything is bursting, including the cast in the latest rendition of The Baker’s Wife, the musical that started on wobbly legs back in the ‘70s and evolved into the current exuberant piece of perfection now at Paper Mill Playhouse. Thirty years worth of tweaking is a long gestation period for any production, but old pros like Stephen Schwartz, who wrote music and lyrics, and Joseph Stein, who wrote the book, revised until they got it right. And, boy, did they!
At long last we have a good old-fashioned musical with story, sets, cast, choreography, music, lyrics, lighting, and costumes that fit together as neatly as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The story, based on the film La Femme du Boulanger by Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giono, revolves around a middle-aged baker and his young, attractive wife, who move to a small, French village. The villagers, without bread since the death of the previous baker some weeks earlier, have become ill-humored and impatiently await their arrival. Once they arrive complications ensue. The baker, inspired by his love for his wife, bakes delicious bread. When she is lured away by a handsome young man, the baker can no longer bake and the townspeople again suffer. They take matters into their own hands, and in doing so, resolve many of the petty arguments that have been festering among them for years.
Stein wastes no time in establishing the character of the village and the intricate relationships among its inhabitants. He passes out humor and barbs generously, and we get to know nearly every villager and his beef as if he is a next door neighbor. That is no easy task with a cast of 18. These relationships develop into subplots that support the larger plot of the baker and his wife. But actually, the big spotlight is on the tiny village as the focal point of the play.
Anna Louizos’s set easily transports us to a vintage French town nestled at the base of the mountains. Narrow, winding alleyways squeeze between and around the tiny shops whose owners live in the intimate quarters above. Nothing is extraneous. Louver windows open onto the square and small balconies prove useful for a breath of fresh air, serenading, and escape. Ivy covers the side of one building, making it easy to scale the wall. There are only two stores, the cafe and the boulangerie, but the square feels like it is teeming with the comings and goings of townsfolk, thanks to the intimacy of the set and to Gordon Greenberg’s superb direction and Christopher Gattelli’s artful choreography. Together, they have created a memorable town with real people who actually have things to do other than listen to an actor belt out a song. In one brilliant stroke of wit, the set revolves, introducing the warmth of the bakery’s interior with all its baguettes and brioches. At the same time, we see the townspeople, noses pressed against the glass, waiting for the opening of their new bakery. In their eagerness, you can almost smell the bread.
The music, like once upon a time, is tuneful and melodic. It is Schwartz’s talent to be able to identify with all the characters, giving each one lyrics that ‘up’ the emotional ante. In the ballad “Meadowlark,” the baker’s wife, Genevieve, struggles between her loyalty to her husband and the lure of the young man who is pursuing her. In an early number entitled “Bread,” Schwartz makes it clear where the passion of the villagers lies. It is the one subject that unites them, the only topic on which they all agree; and the villagers sing it with gusto. “If I Have to Live Alone” demonstrates the melancholic resignation of a middle-aged man and it is delivered with the sadness of real loss. And “Where Is the Warmth” reveals the painful recognition of a young woman’s mistake.
Alison Franck has cast this production impeccably. The baker, Aimable Castagnet, is played by Lenny Wolpe. He extracts genuine affection from the audience with his endearing demeanor. Alice Ripley, as his beautiful wife, provides the perfect contrast. When she enters the village square—and she is the last to do so—it is clear she does not belong. She knows it, we know it, and so do the villagers. While the village brims with vitality, it is not the same as Genevieve’s. Standing perfectly still, she sizzles. Her voice is beautiful, and it adds another dimension to a role filled with longing, missed opportunity, ambivalence, and passion. Max Von Essen exudes energy and confidence as the handsome ladies’ man, Dominique. Genevieve and Dominique make an attractive couple, raising the question: How will Schwartz and Stein resolve this to the audience’s satisfaction? Not to worry.
As Denise and Claude, the proprietors of the cafe, Gay Marshall and Richard Pruitt portray a couple whose love has been buried by time and the bustle of serving their customers. Pruitt gives Claude both sides of a coin—the bonhomie of a tavern-owner toward his customers and the bully who hurls taunts at his wife. Marshall demonstrates a sad vulnerability and wistfulness in Denise. The audience audibly reacts to the hurtful stings and quietly roots for her character to find the appropriate words to fight back.
Lighting and costume design by Jeff Croiter and Catherine Zuber, respectively, also contribute to the effective collaborative feeling.
It is refreshing to see that strong story-telling without superfluous razzle-dazzle can captivate an audience for two hours and forty minutes. It may have taken thirty years of rewrites to get The Baker’s Wife just the way they wanted it, but Schwartz and Stein should feel like they have a hit on their hands. It is a Broadway-caliber gem. Playing at Paper Mill in Millburn, NJ, this production is easily accessible by New Jersey Transit and is within walking distance of the train station and a number of restaurants. It is a must-see.