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A CurtainUp Review
The Baker's Wife
By Simon Saltzman
What Does He Think I Am?
What Sort Of A Weak-willed Sentimental Sheep
Does He Think I Am?
Well, I Won't Even Think About Him,
I'll Just Go To Sleep

--- from the song "Meadowlark" sung by The Bakerís Wife
 Alice Ripley
Alice Ripley
There will be those patrons at the Paper Mill Playhouse who will say, "The Bakerís Wife must be a new musical. Iíve never heard of it. . . but what a delight it is." There will be others who will say, "Iíve been waiting 29 years to see this musical. It is better than I could have ever imagined." Certainly set designer Anna Louizosí imaginative and lovely unit setting of a rural French village square that revolves to also reveal the interior of the bakery and the church is a knockout. During the day, the cafť and store fronts are as often as not bathed in a golden hue by lighting designer Jeff Croiter. At night, the lights from the surrounding town can be seen to widen and embrace the perspective.

As this is a typical French village during the mid 1930s, the citizenry are occupied with getting their morning croissants, continuing old grudges, gossiping and gathering around the cafť. It is here that Denise (Gay Marshall), the proprietorís wife steps forward to set the stage and establish the mood that "nothing is really different" with the lilting "Chanson." The priest (Jamie La Verdiere) is having his daily argument with the school teacher (Mitchell Greenberg) and one neighbor continues his harassment of another neighbor regarding a tree that is shading his spinach patch. Soon everyone is expressing what it is that irritates them the most ("If It Wasnít For You") -- they havenít had fresh bread since the baker died a few weeks ago. All get something new to talk about when the new baker arrives with his lovely and much younger wife, whom they mistakenly assume is his daughter.

This much discussed musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Joseph Stein, is based on the 1938 screenplay La Femme du Boulanger by Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giono. It has resurfaced on occasion in concert and in regional venues, including Philadelphiaís Arden Theater in 2001. Visitors to London may have seen Trevor Nunnís revised staging in 1989.

There is a lot to rejoice in this largely revised, charmingly buoyant and fresh production directed by Gordon Greenberg and starring an irresistibly sensual Alice Ripley in the title role. As the fortunes and misfortunes of The Bakerís Wife have been duly chronicled by CurtainUp's Philadelphia critic (see link), I'll only share with you the pleasure that comes with seeing this romantically whimsical tale that proves that man does not live by bread alone. What there is of a plot Ė the sexy bakerís wife runs off with a cute chauffeur, the baker stops baking. So the hungry villager find her and bring her home Ė is discharged with a Gallic-infused insouciance that is utterly beguiling. Itís similarity in ambiance to the film Chocolate, its squabbling, suspicious, petty by-food-and-sex-driven villagers will not go unnoticed.

Whether The Bakerís Wife has, or ever had, the stuff to make it on Broadway is of little concern, as it will assuredly please the Paper Mill Playhouseís core patrons. Musical theater fans are advised to make it across the Hudson before it ends its run.

While time and temperament has taken its toll on musical tastes and especially musical styles, one can still understand why the The Bakerís Wife score has encouraged continued attention and admiration. Schwartz, a prolific composer (Pippin, Godspell, The Magic Show, The Children of Eden) finally hit the peak of success with his current mega-musical hit Wicked, but, for this listener, his score for The Bakerís Wife remains his best.

The most memorable song is "Meadowlark," an impassioned aria that Genevieve (Ripley) sings as she remembers the legend of the meadowlark and decides to run off with her "beautiful young man." Ripley, whose bright voice has been heard on Broadway in Side Show, The Dead, The Rocky Horror Show and Sunset Boulevard, fills each note of that narrative-driven song with a lyrical intensity that is simply stunning. Impressively, Ripley supplies all the sexy impulses, vocal textures, and even the beguiling tenderness that the role implies.

Although the beautiful Genevieve has been around a block or two, including a previous affair with a married man, her marriage to Amiable and her insecurity among the testy villagers has apparently made her vulnerable to the virile Dominiqueís (Max Von Essen) aggressive wooing. Von Essen offers a charismatic presence and a sterling voice to his role as Dominique, wowing the audience with his robust execution of "Proud Lady,"garnished with leaps and jumps à la Douglas Fairbanks.

Wolpe, a favorite at the Paper Mill for his performances in Gypsy, Baby, and The Tale of the Allergistís Wife, gives a performance that is grounded in a genuinely warm and self-effacing honesty. It gets it fullest expression in the exuberant "Merci, Madame," in which he sings of how Genevieve makes him feel younger, and when abandoned, in the ever-so-poignant "If I Have to Live Alone."

Director Greenberg has to be praised emphasizing what is best about the musical, particularly the endearing idiosyncrasies of the villagers in the forefront. Each one shines with specificity, just as each tends to grow with wisdom and tolerance as their concerns for the baker and his wife take precedence over their pettiness. Standout are Richard Pruitt, as Claude, the brusque Cafe proprietor and Laurent Giroux, as the dashing and amusingly amoral Marquis, always in the company of his three ďnieces,Ē played with conjoined comical verve by Mary Mossberg, Julia Osborne, and Jacque Carnahan. When it comes to playing Antoine, the village idiot, Kevin Del Aguila does it with hilarious panache.

Another musical highlight is the "Bread" number in which the villagers, awakened by the whiff of baking bread, begin to appear in the square still in their bed clothes, but ready to party. This is a musical that makes you want to hold on to your loved one, but also head for the nearest bakery.

LINKS
The Baker's Wife, Philadelphia Review

The Baker's Wife
Book by Joseph Stein
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Based on the film La Femme du Boulanger by Marcel Pagnol & Jean Giono
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Cast: Alice Ripley (Genevieve) Max Von Essen (Dominique), and Lenny Wolpe (Aimable Castagnet ); also Jacque Carnahan (Nicole), John O'Creagh (Doumergue), Cynthia Darlow (Hortense), Kevin Del Aguila (Antoine), Barry Finkel (Pierre), Joy Franz (Therese) Laurent Giroux (M. leMarquis) ,Mitchell Greenberg (school teacher) Jamie La Verdiere (M. le Cure, priest), Gay Marshall (Denise), Michael Medeiros (Barnaby), Mary Mossberg (Simone) , Julia Osborne (Inez), Richard Pruitt (Claude), Clinton Leo Zugel (Philippe)
ORCHESTRA --Piano: John O'Neill (Associate Music Director); Synthesizer: Vicki Carter; Accordion: Kenneth Pierson; Woodwinds: Syjetlana Kabalin, Gary Hamme, John Schultz, Rodney Ruth; French Horn: Ann Mendoker; Viola/Violin: Mary Babiarz; Cello: John Furia; Harp: Keith Goodman; Bass: Dennis Masuzzo; Drums/Percussion: William Strauss; Orchestra Contractor: Walter Schweikardt.

Papermill Playhouse, Millburn, NJ 973.376.4343, http://www.papermill.org/papermill.html
From April 13, 2005 to May 15, 2005
Performance Schedule: Wed-Fri at 8, Thu at 2, Sat at 2:30&8, Sun at 2&7:30 Ticket Prices: $31-68
-Running time: 2 hours and 5 minutes including one intermission.
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on April 17th performance
Musical Numbers
Act One
    Chanson/ Denise If It Wasn't For You/Villagers Merci, Madame/ Aimable & Genevieve Bread/ .Villagers Gifts Of Love/Genevieve & Aimable Proud Lady/Dominique If It Wasn't For You (Reprise)/Villagers Chanson (Reprise)/Denise Serenade/Dominique, Philippe, Aimable & Genevieve Meadowlark/ Genevieve Any Day Now/ Aimable & Villagers/Company
Act Two
    Chanson (Reprise)/ Denise The World's Luckiest Man/Feminine Companionship/Claude, Marquis, the Nieces, and the Men If It Wasn't For You (Reprise)/Priest If I Have To Live Alone/Aimable Romance/The Women Where Is The Warmth?/ Genevieve Gifts of Love (Reprise)/Genevieve & Aimable Finale/ Company
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