Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Baker's Wife
Artistry
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Hold These Truths, Cabaret, Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story, Pericles, and The Kalevala and Kit's recent review of Stomp


Jill Iverson and Bradley Greenwald
Photo by Hilary Roberts
A young wife commits a totally foreseeable act of betrayal against her much older husband. She realizes her error and repents. He forgives her. That pretty much sums up the plot of The Baker's Wife. It does not sound like much, does it? Yet this little known classic musical (more about that oxymoron) is so charming, draped in such a great score, and so beautifully staged and sung, topped off with a smashing performance by Bradley Greenwald, it is without doubt worth seeing. That has been made possible by Artistry, mounting the rarely produced musical in its Schneider Theater at Bloomington Center for the Arts.

The Baker's Wife is a gentle love story, one might say a fairy tale, based on the award winning 1938 French film La Femme du Boulanger directed by Marcel Pagnol. It tells of two loves, one driven by romantic passion, the other grown from deep admiration and virtue. One wins the battle, but the other wins the war. In 1976, it became a Broadway-bound musical under legendary producer David Merrick's banner. With a score by Stephen Schwartz, who'd had three hits in a row (Godspell, {Pippin and The Magic Show), and a book by Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof), it seemed to be a sure-fire hit. But after a six month gestation period with try-out engagements in Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington, DC, the show folded without opening on Broadway.

In spite of problems the show had on the road, its gorgeous score lived on. Schwartz culled what he felt to be its best songs for a recording by lead cast members Paul Sorvino, Patti LuPone, Terri Ralston, and Kurt Peterson (but without an ensemble), which acquired a cult following. "Meadowlark" became a standard thanks to recordings by Betty Buckley and other vocalists. In 1989, Trevor Nunn mounted a full production in London that drew praise from critics but ran only two months. Since then The Baker's Wife has landed at a smattering of regional theater companies. A 2005 production at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey received raves from New York critics who predicted a quick transfer, at last, to Broadway. It never happened. The Baker's Wife remains classic, yet unknown by most audiences.

Artistry has set out to right that wrong, at least for Twin Cities audiences. Staging The Baker's Wife has long been a dream of Artistry's veteran music director Anita Ruth. Ruth's wish has been granted, and she returns the favor by drawing a glorious performance of the score by the eighteen member orchestra. They welcome us to the world of The Baker's Wife with a beautiful set designed by Chad Van Kekerix, depicting an impossibly quaint French village with the boulangerie (bakery) on one side, a sidewalk café on the other side, and vine festooned hills seen in the distance. The front of the bakery rises to cleverly reveal the kitchen downstairs and above it the bedroom, both in lovely country French decor. The styles are a mix of 1930s fashion and with rustic charm. Who wouldn't want to spend at least an evening in this lovely place?

As the show opens, the villagers eagerly await the arrival of their new baker. The last baker died six weeks previous and the entire populace has been bereft for lack of bread. As they wait, we learn of each character's quirks and views on life, of feuds outlasting reason, and of husbands and wives who bicker and belittle. Gossip and ridicule seem to be a mainstay of life in the village.

The baker, well-named Amiable, arrives at last. With him is his wife, Genevieve—beautiful and far younger than her husband. The handsome and vain Dominique is enthralled by her and doggedly pursues her, despite her prostrations that she is married and will never hurt the kind and virtuous baker. Dominique eventually persuades Genevieve that she will dry up living with an old man, and they flee together. Amiable is distraught, telling the scandalized villagers that she has only gone to visit her mother, and that he will bake no bread until she returns. This turn of events has deep ramifications for the entire village. The priest speaks of the moral outrage, the teacher thinks logically of exercise of free will, and the women consider how a bit of romance might pepper their lives. But all are in accord that they must bring the baker's wife back so that he will resume the baking of bread. How this works out for the baker, his wife, and the villagers, well, that's the rest of the play.

Ben McGovern's skilled direction attends to every detail to make life in this place seem as real as a fairy-tale village can be. Every character is fully realized, both by McGovern's attention to their role in the overall story, and by skilled performances all around. Casting Bradley Greenwald in the lead is a great place to start. The role of Amiable seems tailor made for Greenwald, drawing upon his innate bearing of kindness and sincerity, his ability to handle both physical and verbal comedy (a scene where the usually sober baker gets drunk is terrific) and honor the score with his gorgeous baritone. His moment of reckoning, "If I Have to Live Alone," is stunning.

Jill Iverson, as Genevieve, brings a beautiful voice to her songs "Gifts of Love," "Where is the Warmth," and the shimmering "Meadowlark." She also acts the part well, avoiding the trap of making Genevieve seem flighty, but rather showing her growth through a crisis of confidence to land with feet planted in the real world. As Dominique, Phillip C. Matthews has the requisite good looks and beautiful voice, and is convincing in his seduction of Genevieve. In "Proud Lady" he ruthlessly makes his intentions known. Aly Westberg has a strong voice and delightful presence as the put upon Denise. She opens the show with the lilting "Chanson," setting the stage for things to change in a place where everything stays the same. Other stand-outs in the cast include Michael Fischetti as Claude, Denise's husband, who finds it easier to express scorn than affection; Jason Millsap as Antoine, a simpleton who can't keep from causing trouble; and Jim Pounds as Le Cure, the priest whose staunch world view is embattled on all sides.

In addition to the featured solos mentioned above, there is lovely choral work by the ensemble, and "Serenade" is a beautiful quintet. It is not a big dance show. Linda Talcott Lee's choreography is limited by the tone of the show, with dances that are in character to the time, place, and situation.

So, now that it's been staged, how good a show is The Baker's Wife? As stated above, and by many before me, the score is beautiful, that much is certain. Not only is it beautiful, but it works in musical theater terms. Almost every song shows a character thinking through their life, or describes the conditions of the town and the people in it, or advances the plot in some way. The only fillers, perhaps, being a pair of numbers in which the villagers try to cheer up the baker after his wife has gone, which are neither particularly great songs, nor do anything to move the story forward. But that is just two out of a score of fifteen different songs (and five reprises), which is a great batting average.

The book is well written, with a clear through-story, a good dose of wit laced throughout, and sub-plots that reflect upon, rather than distract from the main narrative. It is true that the story is built on outdated gender stereotypes (though to be fair, the chauvinistic attitudes of the men are sharply challenged) and notions of falling in love at first sight that are hard to swallow in 2016. But if we can frame it as a fairy tale and set aside expectations that the real world be depicted on stage, there is so much to love in The Baker's Wife. Is it possible to see the world through the eyes of what we wish it to be, and to be totally forgiving of those who violate this dream? Probably not, but it is not a bad state to aspire to, especially when that state is surrounded by beautiful music, voices, design and staging. If instead of bread, The Baker's Wife delivers an eclair, is that so bad?

The Baker's Wife continues through November 12, 2016, in the Schneider Theater at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington, MN. Tickets: $41.00; age 62 and up: $36.00; age 18 and below: $29.00. $3.00 discount for Wednesday and Thursday performances. Student Rush, $15.00, available 15 minutes before the performance - cash only, valid ID required. For tickets call 952-563-8375 or go to artistrymn.org.

Music and Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz; Book: Joseph Stein, based on the film La Femme du Boulanger by Marcel Pagnol from the novel by Jean Giono; Director: Benjamin McGovern; Choreographer: Linda Talcott Lee; Music Director and Conductor: Anita Ruth; Set Design: Chad Van Kekerix; Costume Design: Ed Gleeman; Lighting Design: Mike Grogan; Sound Design: Chris Moen; Sound Engineer: John Acarregui; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Production Manager/Technical Director: Chris Carpenter; Assistant Director: Christian Bardin; Assistant Stage Manager: Lee Johnson

Cast: Gabriella Abbott (Simone), Greg Bunce (Barnaby), Brandon R. Caviness (Pierre), Tim Beckman Davis (Le Marquis), Corey de Danann (Therese), Michael Fischetti (Claude), Bradley Greenwald (Amiable), Ryan Halliday (Dominique), Siri Hammond (Inez), Grant Hooyer (Philippe), Jill Iverson (Genevieve), Philip C. Matthews (Dominique), Jason Millsap (Antoine), Charlie Morgan (Martine), Jackie Olson (Hortense), Jim Pounds (Le Cure), Bailey Richardson (Nicole), Aly Westberg (Denise).


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