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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

The Baker's Wife at Paper Mill Playhouse
Reviewed by Tim Dunleavy

Also see Bob's review of The Roar of the Greaspaint, the Smell of the Crowd

The Baker's Wife
Alice Ripley and Max Von Essen
When the people of Concorde, a small town in the French countryside, taste the bread their new baker has made for them, they are stunned. It's the best bread they can remember tasting in ages, and they can scarcely believe their good fortune to have such a talented craftsman in their presence.

Anyone who goes to the Paper Mill Playhouse between now and May 15 will know how they feel, for Paper Mill's new production of The Baker's Wife is a delicious treat. Director Gordon Greenberg has taken a show that's mostly unknown to the general public and proven that it ranks with the best musical comedies of recent decades. But he's not the only talented craftsman responsible for this show's success. He's helped by four outstanding talents in the leading roles; a gorgeous set design by Anna Louizos, perfectly evocative of a ramshackle French village in the 1930s; and one of Stephen Schwartz's most beautiful scores.

The Baker's Wife was scheduled to open in New York back in 1976, but closed due to backstage turmoil on its pre-Broadway tour. As a result, it's known more for Schwartz's score - a tasty mélange of French-style cabaret songs, peppy toe-tappers and powerful anthems - than for its story. Paper Mill's production does a great job of telling this story, which may be, oddly enough, the most heartwarming musical ever about adultery.

Based on a 1938 French film, The Baker's Wife is the tale of Aimable Castagnet, a baker in his sixties who moves to a small town in Provence with his new wife Genevieve. The gossipy, squabbling townspeople - who at first mistake Genevieve for his daughter - are suspicious of their new arrival until they taste his bread. They're so ecstatic about it that they sing an adoring ode to "Bread" with their noses pressed against the windows of his bakery ("What is as luscious/As a brioche is?"). Aimable is modest about his gifts and humbled to serve the townspeople. He's especially humbled that Genevieve chose him, and in "Merci, Madame" he sings to his wife of how happy she makes him - "I'm like a kid of 43 again!"

But while the baker's bread gets noticed, it's inevitable that his young wife will too. She attracts the attention of Dominique, the hunky chauffeur for the town's mayor. Soon Dominique is singing a beautiful "Serenade" to her, and he seduces her into leaving her husband and running off with him. On the surface, Aimable seems accepting of his fate - but soon he is burning loaves of bread and declaring "I must need a rest or vacation or/Maybe I won't bake at all anymore!" The townspeople then take on the task of finding Genevieve and returning her to her husband - not because they believe in the marriage, but because making Aimable happy will be the only way they can taste that wonderful bread again.

While the romantic triangle might sound tragic, The Baker's Wife is really an uplifting story. And much of the show's heart is provided by Gay Marshall, playing Denise, the wife of the town's café owner. When she walks onstage in the first moments of the show and sings the enchanting waltz "Chanson," her ingratiating manner immediately puts the audience on her side. Later, when Denise works up the nerve to talk back to her loutish husband Claude (played by the cheery Richard Pruitt), the Paper Mill audience erupts in applause. Marshall is that rare performer who radiates pure joy every moment she's onstage, and her performance is inspiring.

As the baker, Lenny Wolpe is shy to a fault - always walking with his head bowed, rarely looking people in the eye. He makes Aimable completely sympathetic; his low-key, genial nature and his insistence on living by his own rules make him an oddly compelling hero. Once he is betrayed, he can never quite admit how tortured he is, but his anguish is written all over his expressive face. Wolpe seems completely at home as this character, and his even temper makes his climactic confrontation with his wayward wife all the more moving.

As the title character, Alice Ripley shows off her trademark charm and the dynamic voice that has made her one of the best of today's leading ladies. Her big ballads - the somber "Gifts of Love" and the dynamic "Meadowlark" - are not only beautifully sung but skillfully acted. She expressively demonstrates what led her to, and away from, her husband. And as the man who comes between the baker and his wife, Max Von Essen is compelling and energetic. Dominique is a show-off, and Von Essen, with his strong voice and brazen stage presence, is perfect for the role.

Once the two lovers run away, the focus shifts almost completely to the villagers of Concorde. To make up for the absence of Genevieve and Dominique (who only make a few appearances in act two), book writer Joseph Stein has given the villagers many colorful quirks, and the ways they go about their mission of reuniting the Baker and his wife are funny and endearing. In a uniformly strong supporting cast, the most vivid impressions are made by Jamie LaVerdiere, as a priest who never lapses into an uptight caricature; Laurent Giroux, as a mayor who always makes himself the center of attention; and Kevin Del Aguila, who is hilarious as Antoine, the town drunk who may be smarter than he looks. (Or maybe not.)

The Baker's Wife isn't a perfect show, and Greenberg's production does falter in some areas. Some of the subplots seem like padding, and not all of them are satisfying. In particular, Cynthia Darlow (as a browbeaten wife) and Joy Franz (as the town spinster) are not served well by their underwritten parts. And Christopher Galletti's choreography is weak; only one song (a number for the town's women called "Romance") turns into a big dance number, and it peters out with some feeble attempts at comedy. Most disappointing are the costume design by Catherine Zuber and the wig designs by Bettie O. Rogers; the gorgeous Ripley is outfitted in a brunette wig and a severe red dress which do not make her look her best. Still, she doesn't fare as badly as the town's three courtesans; their dresses, hair and makeup are so garish that one wonders how they make a living. Finally, Genevieve's cat plays an important part in the plot, so it's strange that Paper Mill chose to use a stuffed toy in place of a live cat. Productions of this show generally use a real cat, and the toy not only seems unnecessary, but adds an odd touch of artifice to a realistic story.

A few of the songs from the 1989 London cast recording were cut for this production, which clocks in at about two and a half hours. While the cuts generally improve the show, one of the missing songs, "Plain and Simple," gave Aimable an interesting backstory. Without that song, and without any dialogue to replace it, we miss some insight into why Aimable lived a solitary life until he met Genevieve. Its absence also robs his second act solo, "If I Have to Live Alone," of some of its power; we don't get as full a picture as we should of how empty his life has become, and what he really faces on his own.

But these are minor quibbles about a terrific production. Greenberg has drawn excellent, nuanced work from his four leads, who prove themselves superb actors and singers. Because of those performances, and because of Schwartz's superb score and Stein's funny and moving book - not to mention a physical production that will make you feel like you're a French villager too - The Baker's Wife may finally get the attention it has deserved for nearly three decades. Let's hope so.

The Baker's Wife runs through Sunday, May 15 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, located on Brookside Drive in Millburn, New Jersey. Ticket prices range from $31 to $68, with student rush tickets available for $16 the day of performance. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 973-376-4343, online at www.papermill.org, or by visiting the box office.

The Baker's Wife
Book by Joseph Stein
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Based on the film "La Femme du Boulanger" by Marcel Pagnol & Jean Giono
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Choreography by Christopher Gattelli
Music Direction... Tom Helm
Sets... Anna Louizos
Costumes... Catherine Zuber
Lights... Jeff Croiter
Sound... Randy Hansen
Casting Director... Alison Franck
Stage Manager... Richard C. Rauscher

CAST: Gay Marshall... Denise
Richard Pruitt... Claude
Alice Ripley... Genevieve
Max Von Essen... Dominique
Lenny Wolpe... Aimable Castagnet
Mitchell Greenberg... M. Martine (the teacher)
Joy Franz... Therese
Barry Finkel... Pierre
John O'Creagh... Doumergue
Kevin Del Aguila... Antoine
Michael Medeiros... Barnaby
Cynthia Darlow... Hortense
Jamie LaVerdiere... M. le Curé (the priest)
Laurent Giroux... M. le Marquis
May Mossberg... Simone
Julia Osborne... Inez
Jacque Carnahan... Nicole
Clinton Leo Zugel... Philippe


Photo: Jerry Dalia


-- Guest New Jersey reviewer, Tim Dunleavy


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