The fledging group Overture Productions recently treated Boston musical theatre lovers to a concert version of The Baker's Wife. The two performances on November 15th & 16th at John Hancock Hall featured three-time Tony nominee Judy Kuhn heading up a cast of 35 talented local performers. A full orchestra under the musical direction of Michael Joseph played the original orchestrations. Rick Lombardo, responsible for the staging, made it look like this ambitious undertaking was "a piece of cake."
The Baker's Wife, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Joseph Stein, is based on the 1938 film by Marcel Pignol (best known for Fanny) that was destined to become a Broadway musical as early as 1952. David Merrick had his hands on the material by 1976 and embarked on a contentious six-month tour before the authors pulled the plug out-of-town.
Stein was an obvious if uninspired choice since he'd already done the Fiddler on the Roof and Zorba villagers. Schwartz, a hot, young talent, proved to be an inspiration. At the time he was the first composer/lyricist to have three shows running on Broadway simultaneously, but given that they were Godspell, Pippin and The Magic Show, who would have expected this traditional, romantic score?
Stein's contribution is trite, evidencing none of the wit and charm attributed to the film. Schwartz, on the other hand, rose to the occasion. More the pity that this experience, combined with the initial failure of his next project, Working, drove him from the theatre for years.
Thanks to two recordings (both available on CD) The Baker's Wife developed a following. The first is a studio recording of the principals' songs (all retained in this version) performed by four original cast members. The second more extensive one is a cast recording of Trevor Nunn's 1989 London revision (which also failed to catch on.)
Nunn was drawn to the piece after hearing one particular song from the score again and again at auditions. "Meadowlark" has become a cabaret classic thanks to performers like Betty Buckley, Liz Callaway and Patty Lupone (Merrick's final replacement for the original Baker's Wife.)
Kuhn earned her place at the top of the list of ladies who know what to do with that song. She discreetly placed the script on her chair before stepping to the center microphone to deliver a resounding, yet beautifully subtle rendition. The audience was overwhelmed and the show couldn't continue until she graciously acknowledged their applause.
The Boston talent also did themselves proud. Michael Kreutz and David Foley headed up the strong male contingent as Aimable, the baker, and Dominique, the cad who runs off with his pretty, young wife. Mary Callanan, who narrated and got to sing the lovely "Chanson," represented the more maligned distaff side of the story. Most of these performers were far more charming than the characters they played.
Schwartz gave the Boston group the go ahead for this project because he was interested in seeing his latest revisions prior to a Goodspeed Opera House production slated for this August. It's been reported that he's headed for Broadway with the show again.
Several numbers heard on the London recording have been dropped, including "Plain and Simple" which was missed. That song establishes Aimable early on as someone special, a man who comes alive only when he expresses himself in terms of baking bread. Late in act two he has a similar dialogue exchange when he tries to explain how he feels about his missing wife. Along with Aimable's castigation of the prodigal cat, who walks in the door soon after his wife returns, it's Stein's only inspired writing.
The placement of the intermission is evidence of the overall structural problems that the show seems to have suffered from since the beginning. Both at the concert and when listening to the London recording, act one felt like it should end with "Meadowlark." Once Genevieve decides to run away, it seems we should, too, so we can regroup and come back for the discovery of her disappearance the next morning.
Let's hope Schwartz is on the right track. When Kuhn introduced him in the audience at the end of the curtain call, he seemed moved by the response the concert had gotten.
Overture Productions is definitely on the right track. When the organizers catch their breaths, I hope they'll jump right back in with plans for the next concert. Many audience members turned in their ballots to vote for what that show should be, myself included.
For information about Overture Productions: 16 Appleton St., #1, Boston, MA 02116.