The Baker’s Wife
Reviewed by Myron Meisel
Through Oct. 25
Among the most gratifying of musicals being presented in the region has 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.
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.