In brief: With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Joseph Stein, The Baker's Wife is based on a French film by Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giono. The musical -- all about what happens when a young woman leaves her much older husband, a big-hearted baker in a small French village, for an affair with a sexy young man -- was to have opened on Broadway 30 years ago but expired on the road to New York. During what was to have been its pre-Broadway tour, the David Merrick production experienced major cast changes and lots of rewrites. In its final stand at the Kennedy Center, the cast was headed by Paul Sorvino as the baker Aimable, Patti LuPone as his wife Genevieve, and Kurt Peterson as the young stud Domique.
After the show closed, Schwartz (and others) produced a cast album that consists of 10 wonderful songs, three of which are extraordinarily beautiful, emotionally brimming ballads: "Chanson," "Gifts of Love," and the soaring "Meadowlark." This album has been treasured by musical theater buffs since its release in 1976, yet it paints an inaccurate picture of the musical on two counts: not only does it (obviously) not preserve the show's dialogue, it also fails to include any of the songs sung in the show by the villagers, and it turns out that these numbers are rather a waste of time. This is not exactly a news flash: A two-disc cast album of a 1989 London production included all of the villagers' songs and thus offered solid evidence as to why the original production failed to engage audiences. That point is driven home by the Paper Mill Playhouse's current production of a revised version of The Baker's Wife.
The problem is not that there's anything particularly wrong with these numbers in terms of the quality of the music and lyrics -- there isn't -- but that the villagers and their little lives are quite boring in comparison to the romantic triangle at the show's core. Among the locals are a particularly obnoxious drunk, two men who are in conflict because one of them has on his property an oak tree that shades the other's spinach patch, a marquis with three sexy "nieces" in tow, and not one but two married couples in which the men treat their wives like dirt. The plot of the show is supposed to be one big metaphor: After the village baker dies, everyone anxiously awaits the arrival of his replacement, so they're ecstatic when Aimable shows up and delicious aromas begin to waft from his oven. But then Genevieve runs off with Dominique, disrupting the natural order of life in the town. Aimable, who had been a teetotaler, is so upset by her desertion that he begins drinking and stops baking. The previously squabbling villagers unite to find Genevieve and get her to return to her husband.
By the way, it's worth noting that some of the cuts, revisions, and additions that have been made to the show over the years and are reflected in the Paper Mill production seem ill-advised. For example, the original cast recording includes the duet "Endless Delights" for Genevieve and Dominique. Though the song itself is not as great as the others on the album, it serves an important function in giving us a picture of the couple's relationship before it starts unraveling. At Paper Mill, aside from a quick, wordless crossover, the only time we see the baker's wife and her young lover in the second act is in a hotel room scene. The already disenchanted pair indulge in a few listless lines of dialogue, Genevieve sings "Where Is the Warmth" -- and then she takes off! Also, though a new section in the gorgeous Act I ballad "Gifts of Love" is interesting in that it offers a back story about Genevieve having once been very much in love with a married man, this doesn't jibe with her statement in "Meadowlark" that Dominique is the first person in her life to awaken her passion.
The best news about this Baker's Wife is that the three leading performers are excellent -- something I'm especially delighted to report because, when I first heard of their casting, I was skeptical for various reasons. Though I enjoyed Lenny Wolpe in Paper Mill productions of Gypsy and Baby, I thought he might have too much of a contemporary New York affect for the role of Aimable, and I feared that his voice wouldn't be fine enough to do full justice to the baker's beautiful songs. Wrong on both counts: Wolpe is convincingly French and convincingly period (the time frame of the show is not specified but I assume it's the 1930s), and his baritone is rich, warm, and mellifluous. His acting -- especially in two heartbraking scenes when he begins to weep in front of the villagers and, later, when Genevieve finally returns to him -- is superb throughout.
Alice Ripley is the perfect Genevieve, gorgeous to look at in Catherine Zuber's fetching costumes and speaking (and singing) with a lovely, lilting, entirely credible French accent. I've been alarmed by Ripley's singing in various shows and concerts over the past several years because she has had some severe problems with negotiating her register break, so it's a relief to report that this is not the case here: Ripley uses beautiful soprano tones for much of Genevieve's music, belts her lungs out when appropriate, and skillfully mixes her head and chest voices when that's the thing to do.
As the third point of the love triangle, Max von Essen is terrific. Though he was charming in the mega-flop Dance of the Vampires, the Irish Repertory Theatre production of Finian's Rainbow, and his own one-man show at Ars Nova, I felt that von Essen might not be able to exude the hyper-masculine sexual charisma necessary for the largely unsympathetic role of Dominique. Wrong again! He oozes testosterone in his scenes and in his two songs, the strutting peacock anthem "Proud Lady" and the sublimely seductive "Serenade." Von Essen is one of the best young male singers in the business -- and if he can just get over the habit of beginning sustained notes in straight tone before popping into vibrato, he'll be even better.
As noted above, most of the villagers' roles in The Baker's Wife are negligible and/or annoying. Still, Laurent Giroux is a strong presence as the Marquis, Kevin Del Aguila is quite funny as the town drunk, and Jamie La Verdiere is very good as the local priest even though he's way too young for the part. A special nod to Gay Marshall who, as Denise, does a fine job with the moving and lyrical "Chanson" that opens the show.
A fair-sized orchestra sounds great under the direction of Tom Helm, and one couldn't ask for more professionalism than is displayed by set designer Anna Louizos, lighting designer Jeff Croiter, sound designer Randy Hansen, and the aforementioned costume designer Catherine Zuber. To borrow a phrase from Dominque's "Serenade," we all should kneel down to Paper Mill for having the courage and wherewithal to present this problematic but frequently stunning musical in lieu of yet another staging of Grease or -- heaven forbid! -- Miss Saigon. Whatever the flaws in the piece itself, the direction, etc., this largely excellent production of The Baker's Wife must be seen and heard.