Corrections or additions?
This review was prepared by Simon Saltzman for the May 4,
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
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
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
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.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.