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A CurtainUp Review

The Baker's Wife
by Kathryn Osenlund

The Baker's Wife, a Stephen Schwartz/Joseph Stein musical, opened this week at the Arden Theatre's main stage. Based on Pagnol's film, La Femme du Boulanger, this musical made out-of-town tryouts for Broadway 25 years ago. It played the West End, 12 years ago, directed by Trevor Nunn. It just never really made it. Now it has come to Philadelphia, spruced up and shiny. It went over very well with the Arden audience.

I hate to use the H-word, but the musical is Heartwarming. The quaint provincial village of Concord, circa 1935, awaits the arrival of a new baker (Tom Teti). When the white-haired baker arrives with a young wife (Sharon Sampieri), the town is a-buzz. When she falls for the mayor's (Richard Ruiz) handsome handyman, Dominique (Jeffrey Coon), things get pretty shocking for the townspeople. But the folks in this town have some problems in the "love thy neighbor" category, and they need a crisis to bring them together.

The play is warm, the bread practically spills out of the bakery, and the characters are quite endearing. By a happy confluence of writing, costume design, and very competent acting, the many villagers in this production never become a hazy mass. They are very much delineated. The direction is marked by precision and professionalism.

The few areas which might have been improved upon include some of the voices and a little fight. Some actors, perhaps, got the role more for their acting ability than for their singing. And the fight is pretty faked. Otherwise, it is hard to quarrel with such an entertaining show.

The program gives a nod to Chocolat, which bears some resemblance to this story, what with food products and shocking behavior of one kind or another. The set could be from Chocolat's town. It is solid, stunning, and well designed by James Kronzer, who was also the scenic designer for Exit Wounds (our review), a play with a totally different look. The village is captivating and the engineering is something to see -- the way the interior space moves out over the exterior as the play moves in- and outside. Even more than Chocolat, though, I was reminded of Coppelia, and almost expected the villagers to break into the Mazurka.

The orchestra, which is wonderful, plays from some mysterious location. The actors can see the musical director, Jim Ryan, on a monitor located on the back wall of the theatre. There is a cute little production number, "The Luckiest Man in the World," and some bittersweet numbers that also work well. Schwartz's tunes grow on you. They are pretty, complex, and melodic. . .  stronger than his lyrics. The fine orchestration is done by David Cullen.

One of the featured players is Boo, the cat, in the role of Pompom. Boo's 8 X 10 glossy is prominently displayed in the lobby with the other actors' photos. Pompom becomes important when the baker needs to make a point.

The show is not terribly, terribly clever, but it is fun. Ultimately, as so many stories of relationships and reconciliation are, it is pretty predictable. But the predictability doesn't diminish the enjoyment. It is a satisfying little show. Last fall another Schwartz/Stein effort, Rags graced a Philadelphia stage (our review). This one is less ambitious and more entertaining.

By Joseph Stein and Stephen Schwartz
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
Cast: Tom Teti, Sharon Sampieri, Jeffrey Coon, Mary Martello, Gary Giles, Seth Reichgott, Christine Barbush, Maureen Torsney-Weir, Whit MacLaughlin, Ethan Cadoff, Ben Dibble, Richard Ruiz, Charlie Carfrey, Julie Czarnecki, Jennifer Sassaman, Nicholas Saverine, Steve Brady, Sean Baldwin, Casey W. Parker, Boo the cat
Scenic Design: James Kronzer
Lighting Design: John Stephen Hoey
Costume Design: Richard St. Clair
Sound Design: Jorge Cousineau
Choreographer: Julianna Schauerman
Music Director: Jim Ryan
Running time 2 1/2 hours with one intermission
5/10/01- 6/10/01; opening 5/16/01
Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St.,215.922.8900
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 5/16 performance


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