Stephen Schwartz’s The Baker’s Wife [Union Theatre]

The Baker’s Wife
Music & lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Joseph Stein based on the 1938 film La femme du boulanger by Marcel Pagnol & Jean Giono from Giono’s novella Jean le Bleu

Genevieve – Lisa Stokke
Aimable – Michael Matus
Dominique – Matthew Goodgame
Barnaby – James Ballanger
Denise – Ricky Butt
Therese – Danielle Fenemore
Inès – Megan Ford
Antoine – Peter Horton
Hortense – Joanna Kirkland
Philippe – Mark Lawson
Simone – Francesca Leyland
M le Curé – Karl Moffatt
Claude – Ian Mowat
Doumergue – Liam Ross-Mills
The Marquis – Mark Turnbull
Nicole – Natalie Viccars
Pierre – Craig Webb
M Martine – Ross Witherden

Michael Strassen – Director & Staging
Sasha Regan – Producer
Paul Callen – Associate Producer
Robyn Wilson-Owen – Set Designer
Steve Miller – Lighting Designer
Kingsley Hall – Costume Designer

Chris Mundy – musical director & Keyboards
Colin Clark – cello

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 23 September, 2011
Venue: Union Theatre, London SE1

For The Baker’s Wife, Joseph Stein and Stephen Schwartz went back to a 1938 French film for their musical adaptation. The original film, La femme du boulanger, was a classic piece from Marcel Pagnol, who is most famous for his Marseillaise trilogy of stories and plays (Marius, Fanny and César) set in Provence, which were first filmed in the 1930s and subsequently produced as television series several times since. A very prolific writer, Pagnol later became more well-known for other films based on his stories, such as Mr Topaze, with Peter Sellers, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources with Gérard Depardieu, Yves Montand and Daniel Auteuil, and the doubly delightful La gloire de mon père and Le château de ma mere. Daniel Auteuil is currently directing new versions of all three films in Pagnol’s Marseillaise trilogy.

Pagnol wrote charming, bucolic tales of Provence life, full of humanity, about people and their problems, their foibles and their beliefs, going about their everyday lives. Pagnol created microcosms of family life that are universal in their appeal. Schwartz and Stein took the basic story of La femme du boulanger, made a few changes in names and incidents but kept to the spirit of Pagnol’s original to create another charming piece that may have been just too good for Broadway. Although the original 1976 production of The Baker’s Wife toured the US for six months, it never reached New York. It had been mooted as early as 1952 as a possible show for Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows to write (their great success was Guys and Dolls). Bert Lahr was to have played the Baker. Later on Zero Mostel was mentioned but nothing came of it. The 1976 tour starred Topol for a while until Paul Sorvino took over. Carole Demas played the title role before Patti LuPone assumed the part. The tour ended in Washington playing the Kennedy Center to a couple of dozen patrons.

Trevor Nunn became aware of and was much taken by ‘Meadowlark’, one of the songs from The Baker’s Wife, and decided to stage a production. It opened out of town in Ipswich at the end of 1989 and briefly transferred to the Phoenix Theatre in London where it lasted for fewer than sixty performances. Alun Armstrong played the Baker with Sharon Lee-Hill as the Wife. It was no more than just all right, perhaps overlong for the minor story it had to tell and it failed to appeal to a large audience, despite reasonable reviews and good word-of-mouth. It was even nominated for an Olivier Award. However, nothing much happened to it after that, apart from a few subsequent provincial American stagings, an Australian production and three concert performances in New York in 2007.

As so often the Union Theatre in Southwark has found just the right way to present the show. It obviously wasn’t destined to be a big Broadway hit but, scaled down to the size of a fringe space beneath the railway arches in nearby Waterloo it works like a dream. Not every musical needs the full treatment to achieve success. Michael Strassen’s production of The Baker’s Wife gets to the heart of Pagnol’s story and in so doing also gets to audiences’ hearts. Set in a small French village in 1935 the show opens with the reports of a terrible tragedy – the village has been without a baker for seven weeks since the previous one died. How can any Frenchman or woman exist without their fresh daily bread, brioche and croissants? Everybody is so miserable that the lack of bread inflames their tempers over their other petty squabbles. However, a miracle occurs and a new baker, Aimable, arrives with his young and beautiful wife Geneviève who the villagers think must be his daughter. He thanks God for his luck while his spouse admits she couldn’t be happier. However, Dominique, a handsome young chauffeur, catches Genevieve’s eye and although she initially resists his charms, she is finally tempted to run off with him. The cuckolded Aimable gets drunk and burns his loaves. The villagers set out to find the baker’s wife and bring her home. When the situation is finally settled the villagers find they have nothing more to argue about.

It is a charming tale sweetly told in the Union production by a talented cast that performs Stephen Schwartz’s romantic songs with utter conviction. Michael Matus (recently seen in the musical version of Lend Me a Tenor which had only a brief West End run, despite being, along with Betty Blue Eyes, one of the best new musicals of the year) is totally endearing as Aimable with some very pointed numbers to perform such as ‘Merci, Madame’, as he thanks his wife for being with him in his new shop, ‘Any-day-now day’, when he explains that Geneviève will be returning soon, and ‘If I have to live alone’, as he contemplates life if his spouse doesn’t return after all.

As Geneviève Lisa Stokke has the show’s big song, ‘Meadowlark’ in which she movingly tells of a bird who regrets staying with an old king instead of flying off with the sun god who loved her. She sings it just before eloping with the handsome but dastardly chauffeur. Ricky Butt is very good as Denise, wife of a café proprietor and a woman disenchanted with her marriage as she bemoans seeing the same faces every day. Matthew Goodgame is just right as Dominique, the heel of a chauffeur. The ensemble performs brilliantly in the chorus numbers as the villagers and all manage to put over their well-defined characters.

Reducing the orchestral score to piano and cello gives the show a plaintive, plangent feel which Chris Mundy and Colin Clark evoke admirably, with occasional help from Mark Lawson on guitar. Michael Strassen’s staging works miraculously well within the confines of the Union’s minuscule space, proving once again that small is definitely better.

  • The Baker’s Wife is at the Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, London SE1 until Saturday 15 October 2011
  • Tuesday to Saturday 7.30 p.m., matinees Saturday & Sunday at 3
  • Tickets on 020 7261 9876
  • Union Theatre

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