If a show is rarely performed, there is usually a reason. Stephen Schwartz has had many successes over the years but The Baker’s Wife has never shared that success, short-lived runs in the UK failed to garner an audience, while the show has never been presented on Broadway.
With a recent string of successful small-scale musicals under its belt, the compact Union Theatre now tries to breathe new life into The Baker’s Wife but, despite a valiant effort by the cast, it’s a production that fails to rise to the challenge.
Based on Marcel Pagno’s 1938 film ‘La Femme du Boulanger’ we follow the lives of a small group of villagers in rural 1930s France. Nothing much happens in the village, so much so that the highlight of the year is the arrival of a new baker. The fact that the baker’s wife is several years younger than him just fuels the curiosity and gossip.
All isn’t what it seems with the new couple however and their marital problems threaten to impact the entire village.
There’s a strong story lurking here, however Schwartz’s lyrics and Jospeh Stein’s leaden book bury the compelling tale of rebounded love under a mishmash of subplots and minor characters that make it hard to care for the main protagonists. At the start of the show, Denise, the local café owner’s wife, stresses it’s such a small town, everyone knows each other. There falls one of the problems, we also have to get to know the entire village, and trying to cram all their characters and plots into 2½ hours means that we learn little about them bar a few passing images. The show does redeem itself when it focuses in on the Baker and his wife, and the ending is truly moving, sadly by this point interest has been lost.
Michael Strassen’s production does little to suggest this is neglected masterpiece that needs resurrecting. While the intimacy of The Union suits the smaller scenes, the ensemble moments seem muddled and confused, with many performances needing dialling back a few notches from melodrama. Stylised choreography and a Münch-like Scream chalk backdrop seem out of place, while some staging gimmicks, such as foil confetti party poppers and a scene revolving around over glazed baguettes, seem inexplicable.
We never really understand the drivers of these characters, partly due to the structure of the piece, but also due to some static direction.
There are some strong performances here, however, Michael Matus sings strongly as Aimable the baker, delivering a emotionally gripping response to his wife’s infidelity. Lisa Stokke as his wife Genevieve sings beautifully but never really shows the conflict of a woman torn apart by her emotional conflict. The strongest performance of the evening belongs to Ricky Butt as put-upon café owner’s wife, Denise, part chanteuse, part narrator.
Other casting is less convincing. Matthew Goodgame as love interest Dominique never really shows a depth to the character, while Mark Turnbull’s The Marquis also falls into stereotype and cliché.
The last ten minutes of the piece show real potential, with a strong emotional beat and some impressive choral singing, something lacking from most of the piece. Chris Mundy’s musical arrangement for piano and cello (Colin Clark) do provide a plaintive, moving accompaniment but overall its individual songs that impressive rather than the dramatic whole.
It’s been 22 years since the last major UK production of The Baker’s Wife and sadly this production does little to convince that we have been neglecting a lost musical masterpiece. A production that needs to back in the oven and turn the heat up a couple of notches.