The Baker's Wife: Fresh, Warm and Just a Little Crusty
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by Michael Dale
You want to see me cry? You want to see me break down in puddle of tears in an instant? Just play me the score of The Baker's Wife and I'm immediately doing my imitation of Paul Sorvino watching his daughter get an Oscar. Let me preface my review by saying this one of my absolutely favorite shows, and one that hits me emotionally every time. I'm temped to call it a perfect little gem of a musical, and the production at the Paper Mill Playhouse argues the case very nicely.
But thirty years ago The Baker's Wife was pretty much the musical theatre equivalent of a lump of coal. Though Stephen Schwartz, who already had Broadway hits in Godspell, Pippin and The Magic Show, supplied a gorgeous score that many (myself included) will say is his finest work in both music and lyrics, it's been said that Joseph Stein's book was still a bit of a work in progress, although subsequent changes have resulted in a touching piece very much in the vein of his earlier Fiddler on the Roof. Producer David Merrick was continually firing people during the troubled out-of-town previews, including the two stars, the director and choreographer, and multiple revisions turned a promising show into a mess that closed before even making it to Broadway. And that would have been that, except a cast album was recorded with remaining stars Patti LuPone, Paul Sorvino, Kurt Peterson and Teri Ralson, and gradually songs from the score started popping up at auditions and cabaret performances. "Meadowlark", a song Merrick hated so much that legend says he tried to remove it from the show by stealing every page of its orchestrations one night when the theatre was empty, has become a cabaret and piano bar standard.
When interest in stock and regional productions grew, as well as a London premiere, Schwartz and Stein took the opportunity to look at the show objectively and make changes without the pressures of being on the road to Broadway. The Paper Mill production contains their most recent revisions and quite frankly, it easily outclasses the writing found in most new musicals that have been making it to New York.
Based on a 1938 film by Marcel Pagnol, The Baker's Wife takes place in a small isolated town in Southern France. It's the type of community so tiny that the least bit of change in the day-to-day routine is noticeable by all, so when an unexpected death leaves the town without a baker for six weeks, it's a major calamity. The new baker, Aimable (Lenny Wolpe), turns out to be a kind and friendly fellow in the upper reaches of middle age, married to the much younger and very beautiful Genevieve (Alice Ripley). He adores her and treats her like a princess -- perhaps to the degree where he doesn't really take enough time to know her -- but she is not in love and wed him only because a previous affair left her heartbroken and she appreciates the baker's kindness. When a handsome youth, Dominique (Max von Essen), is attracted to her (in the original he's a cad on the make, but now he's a more sympathetic boy with a crush who has a lot to learn about love) she scoffs at his advances, not wanting to hurt the good man she married. But passion overcomes her and she runs off with the boy, leaving the baker too distraught to do his job. At first the townspeople are only concerned about losing their bread supply, but seeing the anguish the man is going through and touched by the depth of his love, they're convinced to put their petty differences aside and work together to find his wife.
This is a musical where the chorus is made up of fleshed out characters, each with a small subplot. There are unhappy spouses, morality watchdogs, quarreling neighbors and others who are all affected in one way or another by the events in the bakery. The leader of this French Greek chorus is Denise, an overworked cafe' owner's wife charmingly played by Gay Marshall, who sings the beautiful waltz, "Chanson", touching on the musical's theme of noticing the slight differences in everyday life.
The score is filled with moments to be cherished. Two joyous melodies that demand to be danced to, "Merci Madame" and "Any Day Now Day", reveal bitter undercurrents when presented in context. "Gifts of Love" is a heartbreaking exploration of Genevieve's unsuccessful attempts to love Aimable for his kindness to her, and in "Where is the Warmth" she questions the value of passion without tenderness. "Proud Lady", given a completely new lyric for the re-interpreted Dominique, is still the kind of virile, showy number any baritone would relish and "Meadowlark" provides some of musical theatre's most soaring dramatics.
Lenny Wolpe had the misfortune of giving strong featured performances in three of the 1980's major Broadway flops: Onward, Victoria, Copperfield and the musical about the Shroud of Turin, Into The Light, totaling only 20 performances between them. His off-Broadway starring vehicle, Mayor, had a healthy enough run, but being made up in a cartoon image of Ed Koch wasn't exactly a career-making opportunity. But outside of New York Wolpe has been a valuable character man in both leading and supporting roles, and as the baker he gives a thoroughly memorable performance. A strong singer and impish dancer, his Aimable is tender, sincere and endearingly comical. Alice Ripley sings with an even deeper, throatier quality than we've been accustomed to hearing from her; extremely effective for her fine portrayal of a woman continually at war with her own emotions. Max von Essen makes for an attractive rich-voiced juvenile with plenty of charisma.
Director Gordon Greenberg stages the show with a delicate touch in a production which is unashamedly sweet. Although there are limited opportunities for choreography, Christopher Gattelli's dances are merry, folksy and humorous. The storybook visual design features a quaint street scene that opens up to reveal the bakery's interior. Anna Louizos' set, as lit by Jeff Croiter, is dominated by autumnal colors that so resemble an oil painting you can nearly see brush strokes. Catherine Zuber's costumes carry on the color scheme with oranges, purples and other shades that suggest the burning leaves.
Perhaps closing before reaching New York was a blessing for The Baker's Wife. Broadway is filled with stories of potentially fine musicals that were buried under misconceived productions. After thirty years of leavening it's risen into fresh, warm and immensely delectable treat.
Photos by Jerry Dalia: Top: Alice Ripley
Middle: Alice Ripley and Max von Essen
Bottom: Lenny Wolpe and company