The Baker’s Wife; These Paper Bullets! A Modish Ripoff of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing; First Date; and Bonnie & Clyde
By Myron Meisel
Like probably everyone else of my generation, my entry point into the theater was through the musicals, back when they embodied rather than aped the pop music of the time, when one’s piano teacher would breathlessly announce on arrival that he had in hand pirated copies of the latest sheet music from the newest Broadway hit.
It was still the Golden Era that spanned the half century from World War I until the demarcating year of 1968, when the Best Musical the Tony could honor was the Hallelulah, Baby!, after which the enduring works were primarily Stephen Sondheim’s, A Chorus Line and a smattering of good shows every few years or so. Indeed, though not perpetrated intentionally, I realized when in the audience for Avenue Q that I had not actually attended a Broadway musical on Broadway in a quarter century since Sweeney Todd, so inessential had become the commercial offerings, including such execrable scores as Rent, Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera.
Nevertheless, there is such immortal pleasure to be had from the form, the delight and power of expressing emotions, even ideas, through melody and lyric (and dance and stagecraft!), that the hunt for worthy new entries continues to tantalize, disappointments notwithstanding. Indeed, while the classical opera over the last 30 years has been resurrected as a thriving art form, legions of committed aficionados continue to attempt to contemporize the popular musical outside the boundaries of an industrial complex subsumed by spectacle for tourists and the weary careerists who can afford a ticket. Amidst the inevitable majority of duds, exciting original musicals surface regularly on local stages, a few of which immediately spring to mind: Laura Comstock’s Ball-Punching Dog (who will produce more of Chris Jeffries’s work?); Bad Apples; Divorce: The Musical; The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World; Hey, Morgan!; The Beastly Bombing; Great Expectations, etc.
In the spirit of adventure and indefatigable optimism, then, the past week I embarked all over the county to four musicals in four nights, all mostly new to the area. The most gratifying of them has in fact been here before, in appreciably different form: Stephen Schwartz (songs) and Joseph Stein’s (book) The Baker’s Wife, based on the hit 1938 film by Marcel Pagnol from a novelette by Jean Giono and starring the immortal Raimu. This ill-fated project played the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion with Topol in the lead on a shakedown tour in 1976 that ended at the Kennedy Center in Washington with Paul Sorvino and Patti LuPone but never reached Broadway.
That might have been that, except the boundlessly committed Bruce and Doris Yeko did record some of the songs as their first LP release on their Original Cast label, which garnered a zealous audience and a surprise Grammy nomination. Over the years, Schwartz and Stein continued to retool the material, achieving a new Trevor Nunn production in the UK in 1989 and a further reworking at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2005, finally making it to off-Broadway earlier this year.
The material certainly would have seemed a good bet: a proven crowd-pleasing property, with plenty of sentiment and character comedy, and a contrast between two distinct varieties of love for the titular character. Stein (Plain and Fancy, Juno, Take Me Along, Zorba) had traversed kindred ground of rustic folklore with his adaptation for Fiddler on the Roof, while Schwartz, after Godspell, Pippin and The Magic Show, was ripe to tackle a mainstream vehicle in a more traditional mode.
While Pagnol and Giono were no strangers to fond caricature, their powers of observation were precise and revealing in their exposure both of human frailty and resilience. For a Provençal village in 1935, the death of the local baker is a disaster remedied by the arrival of Amiable (Greg Baldwin), a master craftsman who seemingly affords the provincials with their only unalloyed pleasure apart from immemorial feuds and petty gossip, and who feast with equal gustatory delight on insinuation regarding his new wife of half his age, Genevieve (Chelle Denton).
In the context of a musical adaptation, much such literary subtlety tends to be vulgarized, although beignet morsels of lyrical compression such as “as luscious/as fresh brioche is” bestow compensatory rewards. Schwartz, who went on to unimaginable success in Disney animated features and Wicked, has rarely been much better than a journeyman songwriter, but abetted by the skillful carpentry of Stein, this may be my favorite of all his scores, closely followed by his other failed collaboration with Stein, Rags (for which Schwartz only wrote the lyrics, to Charles Strouse’s music). “Meadowlark,” a power ballad with some bite, in which Genevieve contemplates running off with a hunky lover (Nick Echols), has become something of a cabaret (and audition) standard, and while many of the songs are plainly derivative of better ones in better musicals, they all work well in the context of the familiar conventions of midcentury musical comedy.
Removed from the trappings and expectations of a commercial mounting, this lesser-grade diamond shines more conspicuously within the modesty of a small-house setting, and the production here, while not transformative, is something of a wonder of its own. Impeccably cast and fluently staged, decently sung and all the better without amplification, it bears the unmistakable trademark touch of director Richard Israel, who has amply demonstrated how his instincts for the beloved genre spring from deep in his bones. Such talents go far to burnish the modest virtues of this unfairly neglected piece and bring out the best from the players, the musical direction (Jake Anthony) and choreography (Julie Hall). Israel understands how a show needs to move, visually and verbally, and despite the constrictions of space, applies all the polish needed to realize the best values within the material. The Baker’s Wife proffers joys of a now-antique ilk, though for those of us who hunger for them, it sustains.
These Paper Bullets! (photo by Michael Lamont)
Paradoxically, the smartest and most brilliant of the four musicals under discussion is also the most irksomely confused. These Paper Bullets! most candidly incarnates “A Modish Ripoff of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing,” set in swinging 1964 London with yet another mock burlesque of the Beatles. The show had great success at Yale Rep last season, and after its run here at the Geffen will move to the coproducing company, New York’s Atlantic Theater Company. It’s a flashily attired and accoutered extravaganza that flails to reconcile its clashing tones, often shrilly tiresome, if punctuated at intermittent intervals by passing wit and spasmodic fits of genuine Brit silliness, though with precious little satiric glee.
It’s an open secret among actors that Much Ado About Nothing invariably plays like gangbusters with audiences, who revel in the Beatrice-Benedek verbal jousting. One wishes it could form a better backbone for this fruitily overstuffed script. Ben, a less malign version of John Lennon, spars with former flame Bea, herself a happening fashion designer (and equally savvy marketer of her own celebrity), yet despite the game verve of bright actors Justin Kirk and Nicole Parker, neither the hostility nor the attraction ever adequately ignite. The same could be said of Rolin Jones’s dementedly ambitious writing, which derives most of its spark either from Shakespeare himself or from deft goofs in response to his dialogue.
The transpositions of the subplots to another eon are necessarily spotty, tending to devolve into the least common denominator of durable types, eliciting more reductive cliché than inspired counterpoint. And while the subject is certainly a musical one, the relatively few songs are dead-on pastiches of early period Fab Four wrought by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, a pleasing diversion, but after fifty years of groups whose albums aspire to be “Beatlesque,” hardly qualifies as a novelty.
The period is wrought in the most elaborate and exaggerated terms, with knowing design riffs, particularly from Jessica Ford’s take-no-prisoners costuming excesses and arranger-orchestrator Tom Kitt’s fashionable evocation of the great zeitgeist shift from music hall through skiffle to rock ‘n’ roll. (Kitt won a Pulitzer and two Tonys for his rock score for 2009’s Next to Normal, so while it’s nice to hear him work a fun gig, I couldn’t help preferring we were watching one of his own musicals.)
Throughout the overextended antics, one wishes the show had found a more coherent sense of its own distinct identity. Seeing shortly afterward the west coast premiere at South Coast Rep of One Man, Two Guv’nors, the juggernaut gloss on Goldoni updated to Brighton a bare year earlier (see Terry Morgan’s review here [link]), it’s quite apparent that everyone involved with These Paper Bullets! had at least one eye cocked on that success, and were determined to up the ante on every front. It turns out that when the bluff inevitably gets called, they forfeit the pot. It’s almost always just a wee bit shy of fun for all the forceful antics.
First Date, with songs by Alan Zachary & Michael Weiner and book by Austin Winsberg, completed a modest 200-performance Broadway run in 2013, perhaps largely buoyed by the presence of a television star. For the most part, it’s a compendium of stereotypes — dramatic, lyrical, musical — about a pair of characters on the eponymous blind meet for drinks and just maybe dinner, who themselves think and react to one another with assaults of defensive stereotypes about the vaunted difference between the sexes, which largely seem to be true only to the extent the bogus expectations are so deeply held.
To make matters worse, the big cathartic scene actually encourages audience cheering for some blatantly misogynistic aggression — however imaginary — in which an ex-girlfriend of ambivalent memory finally gets her comeuppance because, well, she had it coming.
Having cleared the air, First Date, while banal, is paradoxically neither dismissible as insensitive nor negligible as a musical entertainment. It’s savvier than it pretends, and within its admittedly limited emotional compass and artificial unity of time, often effectively communicates sincere emotions through aptly fashioned songs. Think of it as a curdled yuppie Marty with production numbers that reflect the limited psychological dimensions of the couple with a logical consistency and a sincere desire to please, and First Date emerges a plausible variant for a contemporary zeitgeist that decidedly ought to evolve into something more dated than it yet has.
Perhaps this First Date is so tangibly better than it ought to be because it receives such an alert production with honest professional skill. Given that their personalities are in fact rather unsympathetic, the natural charms of Marc Ginsburg and Erica Lustig don’t compromise the edges but eke out empathy despite them. (Riddle me this: The allegedly virtuous investment banker actually cannot think of a morally bad deed he has committed, and the script — and date — cluelessly let him off the hook.) Similarly, the ensemble makes the most of what are highly contrived interpolations that allow them to carry nearly half the songs and almost all the dancing.
Credit obviously goes to director Nick DeGruccio and his team, who navigate the shoals of this shallow piece with celerity and showbiz smarts. Producing organization McCoy Rigby Entertainment has obvious constraints with its core audience base, and yet within those, displays some genuine daring in testing aesthetic boundaries, and with its homegrown productions so far this year of Carrie and Billy Elliot has impressively gone the extra distance to provide originality and class. In its own, less substantial way, this First Date provides more of that same honorable attention to its mission.
Will Collyer and Ashley Fox Linton in ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ (photo by Alan Weston)
Finally, and regrettably, the woebegone saga of Bonnie & Clyde (i.e., the musical), having eked out a month of previews and another month of regular performances in 2011 (and still snagging two Tony nominations the following spring), certainly has its adherents, which makes it appropriate fodder for the Musical Theatre Guild, opening its 20th season back at the Alex in Glendale after a two-year hiatus in Santa Monica. MTG specializes in those musicals, whether neglected or maudit, that offer its knowledgeable audiences a chance to encounter works that otherwise might not be performed. They do it with a mandated limit of 24 hours of rehearsal, on book but invariably with the vocal material mastered.
Not coincidentally, MTG presented The Baker’s Wife back in 2000 (and a first-rate Rags a year later), but this represents its first foray into the music of Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde, Dracula: The Musical, The Scarlet Pimpernel), a composer who exposes Stephen Schwartz as an unrecognized successor to Richard Rodgers. The songs here are not awful, which has not always been the case in the past, but they lack not merely originality but any sense of distinction or even occasion. They offer opportunities for modest ornamental display, yet almost without exception provide little nourishment beyond empty calories.
The narrative, too, which happens to owe precisely nothing whatever to the justly fabled 1967 film (the entire first act takes place before the movie even begins), drones on tiresomely with trite allusions to the disenfranchised’s hunger for notoriety; one may be grateful that it’s too lazy to belabor contemporary parallels. The criminal duo lack any discernibly offsetting characteristics to counterbalance their off-putting thuggery and small-minded violence, save for the imagination and vanity that distinguishes them in their own minds from the grim, hapless dreariness of rural Depression existence.
Divested of the diversions of production values, the limitations of the project get sorely exposed, though MTG soldiers through with its talent and dedication unsullied. Director Calvin Remsberg has helmed some of the company’s finest presentations — Parade (which trumped the later Taper version for sheer emotional impact), Street Scene, even (improbably under the circumstances) Titanic — though the best he can manage here is to shepherd a coherent through-line, maintain a consistency of performance and allow everyone to survive with their dignity intact.
The Baker’s Wife, Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 26 & Oct. 24, 2:30 p.m.; through October 25. (323) 462-8460, actorsco-op.org. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.
These Paper Bullets! A Modish Ripoff of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Through October 18. (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.com. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
First Date, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada; Wed.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., & Sun., 2 p.m.; through October 11. (562) 944-9801, lamiradatheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Bonnie & Clyde, Musical Theatre Guild at the Alex, Glendale. Closed. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.