The Baker’s Wife has the Western Stage’s tight cast cooking.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
Joseph Stein wrote the book and Stephen Schwartz wrote the lyrics and music to The Baker’s Wife, in many ways an archetypal Broadway musical – only the financially plagued 1976 work never made it to Broadway. It’s based on Marcel Pagnol’s comedic French film La Femme du Boulanger, which won Best Foreign Film awards in 1940 from the National Board of Review and New York Critics Circle. It’s set in the provincial French village of Provence in the 1930s. There’s so little to occupy the villagers that they pass their time quarrelling with each other at the local café that belongs to Claude (a blustery Michael Russell) and his put-upon wife Denise (a solid Melissa Chin-Parker). Claude and his brother Barnaby (John G. Bridges) are locked in some ambiguous family feud, and both bristle at their respective wives (Barnaby’s wife is played by Anna Dille), batting them down with patriarchal disdain. Doumergue (Peter M. Eberhardt) feuds over his oak tree blocking the sun from his neighbor Pierre’s (Simon Banaag, Yul Brenner-over-the-top) spinach garden. Teacher Monsieur Martine (Tom Kiatta), Rev. Le Cure (Philip Pearce) and playboy Monsieur Le Marquis (a dapper Paul Sallabedra, surrounded by three sexy “nieces”) fuss with each other on principled and philosophical grounds revolving around logic, spirituality and sensuality, respectively.
The atmosphere is agitated further by the deprivation of their beloved fresh breads due to the death of the former village baker weeks ago. Into this milieu arrive newlyweds who make the plot rise: the baker Aimable Castagnet (opera-trained bass Reg Huston) and his considerably younger wife, Genevieve (confident soprano Jennifer Kiatta). The gossip-happy villagers immediately zero in on their disparate ages, with Antoine the village idiot (a Shakespearean fool played goofy and true by Paul McCormack), revealing what everyone else is already thinking.
“Monsieur Castagnet,” he says publicly at the cafe, “you are very good at producing bread. Do you suppose you can still produce babies?” The villagers are embarrassed, the amiable baker takes no offense, but the constant needling makes Genevieve questions her new marriage. It doesn’t help that her husband treats her like a goddess, instead of a partner. When Aimable discreetly remarks that she never returns his salutations of “I love you,” it reveals a fissure in their marriage, into which slips Dominique (R.J. Livingston), a young player who relentlessly courts Genevieve under the baker’s oblivious nose.
The show is spiked with funny and rousing moments. When Claude orders his wife to set the café tables, she replies angrily, at last, “You have two hands – set them yourself!” (Seemingly every woman in the audience cheered.) Aimable is gregarious to the point of blindness: He sees friendliness when he’s being slighted, placates when he should fight. But when he finally rears up, after being abused, actor Reg Huston turns the kitten into a roaring lion – it’s almost shocking, and oh-so satisfying.
The material is cheerfully broad. It’s reinforced, though, with clever choreography and tough realities, like how passion in marriages diminishes over time, and ways we all operate with a certain reservoir of self-deception. It’s a microcosmic farce of society and human relations, set to animated music – and there lies the Achilles heel that might have steered The Baker’s Wife away from Broadway. Though the story is engaging and TWS’s production is tops, the music falls shy of being Broadway good. The overwrought “Meadowlark” and the lyrically simple “Chanson” have broken out and staked a claim, but the other songs aren’t infused with memorable melodies.
Western Stage’s nine-person orchestra provides a versatile and warm-bodied accompaniment, with dramatic flourishes of timpani, triangles, accordion and chimes punctuating the lyrical guitar work and keyboards. But the melodies often get sappy when restraint would have served better or they just float aimlessly. That’s the fault of Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Disney’s The Prince of Egypt) and his reworked arrangements and not conductor and musician Don Dally, who steered the course with finesse. Think of Phantom of the Opera’s “Music of the Night” or Oliver’s “I’d Do Anything” and you hear those unmistakable melodies – that does not happen with tunes from The Baker’s Wife.
But the show is a gleefully cynical examination of marriage. Everyone is riddled with faults, which lends it a respectably grown-up perspective. And the ensemble acting is assured as bedrock; it feels like these people have really lived together for a long time.
The set is a wonder. The façade of the bakery spins around, revealing the interior. The exterior wall of its second floor rises up to reveal the newlyweds’ fully furnished bedroom interior. The outdoor café extends over half the orchestra pit, gobbling more space to dramatic effect. The lighting enhances the rich details, showering the stage with speckled sunlight or cool moonlight.
The Baker’s Wife is an all-around entertaining show, chocked with good lines and characters, and effervescent songs that tickle and evaporate. If Broadway won’t have it – fine. It’s a merry addition to our theatre scene.
THE BAKER’S WIFE runs 8pm Friday-Saturday, 2pm Sunday, until Oct. 11, at Western Stage, Hartnell College, 411 Central Ave., Salinas. 755-6816, www.westernstage.com.