The Baker's Wife, Book by Joseph Stein based on the film "La Femme de Boulanger" by Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giono, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Directed by John Saunders. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"The fire is there, but where is the warmth?"
Back in 1976 we all sat with baited breath waiting for the new Stephen Schwartz musical, "The Baker's Wife," to come in off the road and its pre-Broadway tour and finally open in New York. It never opened. It had played in Los Angeles and Washington, DC and word-of-mouth said the show was in trouble. Topol had been replaced by Paul Sorvino and Carol Demas by Patti LuPone. The authors had pulled out of the production and everything ended out of town. The show was recorded, the record released and the world knew that the author of "Pippin" and "Godspell" had written some wonderful songs. The author of the book was, himself, no slouch, with a string of Broadway hits under his belt. When a recording of the solos, duets and trios was released the following year it was clear that Schwartz had composed his most mature and enchanting score so it seemed probable that the issue was the story, the book that Stein had written. That was that.
A London production reintroduced the possibility of a New York edition but once again nothing came of it. The show grew in mythical ways into the "one that got away." In this century there have been several attempts to bring it back to life and now the Mac-Haydn Theatre, a non-pro company in Chatham, New York has given it a new airing in the round as its first production of 2015. Answers abound, myths are shredded and the show is on its feet for people to see and judge for themselves. The problem with the show, it seems, is neither the book nor the score. The problem is one of sensibility and sensitivity. This outing is lucky to have John Saunders as a director. He is able to get into the heart of the matter and get under your skin.
Four songs are missing from this version and some of what is left could be cut without feeling a major loss. A song from the second act has been moved into the finale-spot in Act One and it is a very effective way to close out that part of the story. The story. What about the story? Well, ostensibly it is about a "mature" French baker in a small town in Provence, France in 1935 whose young wife runs off with a younger man, regrets it and comes home to stay. More truly it is about a small town in Provence where the population only cares about its supply of bread and cannot abide dealing with human emotions and feelings. Ultimately it is the story of women and their power over men. That latter tale is what Saunders seems to have decided to emphasize and that is the right choice, one that may have been overlooked in the touchy 1970s.
Four women take center stage (in the round that's not difficult) and their individual stories play out with strong emtional sentiments. Therese is older, single and religious, devoted to her morality and her mortality. Hortense is an abused wife whose personal desires are constantly swallowed in deference to her husband's outrageous public humiliation of her. Denise is a hard-working woman whose husband tends to overlook her finer qualities, replacing them in his mind with her more practical ones. Genevieve is a woman whose past may have a past worth discussing but whose present is tied up in a recent marriage to an older man; her romantic tendencies have been directed at a cat who often runs off and when she has the chance to follow that kitten's willful ways she takes the opportunity. It is their different stories that dominate this stagework and it is the four women who play them who really make a difference in how we accept "The Baker's Wife."
Libby Bruno, Gabe Belyeu, Mark Hardy, Emily Kron; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
Emily Kron and Aleks Knezevich; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
Not that the men can be ignored. They do their part to make the stories stirring and interesting. Though moving very differently in this version than in the original it is the men and their mistakes that prompt the women to move into prominence. Hortense's husband, Barnaby, played by Joe Ventricelli, is harsh and abusive. Hortense, played with great restraint by Lissa Bak, cannot even enjoy a strawberry without provoking his wrath. Therese, in the expert hands of Carol Charniga, puts everyone in their place until she discovers that love may exist for her thanks to the teacher, M. Martine played handsomely by Michael O'Brien. Here is a man who doubts Joan of Arc but can accept the moralizing and religious old-maid who lives nearby.
Denise, acted and sung wonderfully by Libby Bruno, does whatever her husband demands of her but she lives with an understanding that "every day you do what you do every day....but it can make a difference." Her husband, Claude, the innkeeper, is brought to life by Gabe Belyeu who pleases very much in this role. Taken to task by his wife, Belyeu's Claude grips her hand with understanding and apparent love.
Mark Hardy as Aimable Castagnet - the Baker, and Aleks Knezevich as Dominique the chauffeur for the Marquis are the love interests of Genevieve, the title character. One has character and one has good looks and charm. Genevieve, played by Emily Kron, has the advantage of knowing both men intimately and finding out what advantages each brings to a long-lasting relationship. When she cannot easily choose between them, she is prompted into what would appear to be a pathetic compromise, but in reality she has chosen well and she has the strength to hold up in the face of adversity and scorn.
Kron is wonderful in the role, singing the hit tune "Meadowlark" with great beauty; this is a storytelling experience with resonance to Genevieve's own situation. Hardy is magnificent playing drunk, sober, straight, loving and judgemental with equal effectiveness. His final speech to the straying cat is so real and touching that he brought tears to my eyes. Knezevich sings gloriously and adds just the right amount of romance to his "Serenade".
The rest of the company are perfect support for these principals and make the evening into a joy. Though the weaknesses of the story are overtly displayed and the songs in the second act seem weak, the show works very well and prompts curtain call applause that is highly justified.
Jimm Halliday's costumes are lovely but speak more to the 1940s than the 1930s. Bryan Knowlton's choreography is inventive and occasionally frightening. Kevin Gleason's scenic design is quintessential Provence. Andrew Gmoser's lighting is mood-sensitive and attractive. Josh Smith led his small ensemble with a precision that was rewarding. Schwartz's score is sometimes derivative - there are Jacque Brel moments and some very identifiable tune quotes, but the best songs are delicious to hear.
You have an opportunity here if you're a musicals fan to fill in a large gap in your experience by seeing this production. I doubt that this show can be better realized and so it is not to be missed. If you don't see it, you won't be missing a perfect show, but you will be missing some perfect work by some very talented people. The choice is yours.
The Baker's Wife plays through May 31 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre, located at 1925 Route 203 in Chatham, NY. For information and tickets call 518-392-9292 or go on line at www.machaydntheatre.org.