Corrections or additions?

This review was prepared by Simon Saltzman for the May 4,

2005

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Paper Mill Review: Baker’s Wife

There will be those patrons at the Paper Mill Playhouse who will say,

"The Baker’s Wife must be a new musical. I’ve never heard of it but

what a delight it is." There will be others who will say, "I’ve been

waiting 29 years to see this musical. It is better than I could have

ever imagined." Certainly set designer Anna Louizos’ imaginative and

lovely unit setting of a rural French village square that revolves to

also reveal the interior of the bakery and the church is a knockout.

During the day, the cafe and store fronts are as often as not bathed

in a golden hue by lighting designer Jeff Croiter. At night, the

lights from the surrounding town can be seen to widen and embrace the

perspective.

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 cafe. 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 to expressing what it is that irritates them the most ("If It

Wasn’t For You"). They are all disgruntled because they haven’t had

fresh bread since the baker died a few weeks ago. They 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, based on the 1938 screenplay La Femme du

Boulanger by Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giono, 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 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 in various

theater sources, it is only important to share with you the pleasure

that comes with seeing this largely revised version of 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, and 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. Its similarity

in ambiance to the film "Chocolat" – with 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, as well as those musical theater fans

that advisedly make it across the Hudson.

While time and temperament has taken its toll on musical tastes and

especially musical styles, one can still understand why the music of

"The Baker’s Wife" has encouraged continued attention and admiration.

Schwartz, a composer of many musical theater scores, including

"Pippin," "Godspell," "The Magic Show," and "The Children of Eden,"

has 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 (Lenny Wolpe) 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 a

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 for emphasizing what is best

about the musical, particularly the endearing idiosyncracies 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. Standouts are

Richard Pruitt, as Claude, the brusque cafe proprietor, and Laurent

Giroux, as the amusingly amoral Marquis, always in the company of his

three "nieces," played with conjoined comical verve by Mary Mossberg,

Julia Osborne, and Jacque Carnahan. Kevin Del Aguila plays Antoine,

the village idiot, with hilarious panache.

This is a musical that makes you want to hold on to your loved one but

also head for the nearest bakery.

– Simon Saltzman

"The Baker’s Wife," Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn.

$19 to $68. 973-376-4343 or www.papermill.org. Through Sunday, May 15.


Previous Story Next Story


Corrections or additions?


This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments