The Baker's Wife

Paper Mill Playhouse

Millburn, NJ - April 2005

Review by John Kenrick

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions. All the photos below are used with the permission of Paper Mill.)

The cast of The Baker's WifeVillagers salute baker Lenny Wolpe in Paper Mill's The Baker's Wife.

After years of wondering, musical theatre buffs can finally see The Baker's Wife as it was meant to be seen, and thanks to the folks at Paper Mill, the results are delicious indeed. But fair warning -- only go if you are prepared to fall in love.

Although The Baker's Wife closed after a stormy pre-Broadway tour back in 1975, an independently produced cast recording of Stephen Schwartz's luscious score has been enchanting listeners ever since. That recording has inspired new productions everywhere from London to Off-Broadway. Schwartz and librettist Joe Stein have fine-tune the material, and the current version on view at Paper Mill is a true charmer.

Alice Ripley and Lenny WolpeAlice Ripley and Lenny Wolpe sing "Merci, Madame."

The story of an aging baker who's much younger wife leaves him for a handsome lothario her own age -- well, let's just say it is not quite enough to fill an evening in the theatre. So the authors have expanded the role played by the villagers, making the community a key player in this classic romantic triangle. (Is someone suggesting that it takes a village to save a marriage?)

The result is a beguiling musical that literally snuck up on me. It took a little time. At the end of the first act, I was entertained but wondering what the fuss was all about. As the second act progressed, I found myself falling for these characters -- especially the villagers. Oh, how I wish one of this season's new Broadway musicals had given me this feeling! By the final scenes, I (and many in the audience around me) were wiping away a tear. Along the way, there were loads of laughs, several cheers, and even a gasp or two, all caused by great writing and great performances. (Remember when musical theatre lovers could take those things for granted?)

Alice Ripley and Max Von EssenAlice Ripley and Max Von Essen in The Baker's Wife.

The physical production is first-class. Anna Louizos provides sumptuous turntable sets that bring the audience right into the heart of a town in Provence. I have rarely seen such a handsome and inventive use of stage space. Catherine Zuber's costumes are nothing short of perfection, and Jeff Croiter's expert lighting puts everything in the best possible perspective. Music director Tom Helm's sure hand kept the songs well-paced, with fine orchestrations by David Cullen.

Director Gordon Greenberg has done a great job focusing on the villagers and keeping this elaborate production moving with genuine polish. There were moments when I wish he had been equally as effective in defining the lead characters, and his decision to have the cast use French accents was ill-advised. It is ridiculous to have characters who are supposedly speaking to each other in French use accents -- particularly since those accents keep disappearing. But Greenberg deserves overall credit for making this one-time flop look and feel like the winner that it is.

Lenny Wolpe and Gay MarshallLenny Wolpe watches as Gay Marhall pours some potent cognac.

A trio of Broadway veterans lead an outstanding cast. Lenny Wolpe is best known for his comic gifts, so it is a particular pleasure to see his moving performance as the baker Aimable. Few actors could equal his charm, pathos, and solid vocal technique. From first scene to last, you can't help but love him! Alice Ripley makes the philandering Genevieve surprisingly sympathetic, and her rendition of the renowned ballad "Meadowlark" is a bona fide show-stopper. Max Von Essen is visually and vocally delectable as Dominique, the self-centered Romeo who steals Genevieve from her aging husband.

The supporting ensemble charms from the get go, filling the stage with a collage of vivid, multi-layered personalities. All are excellent, but several are standouts. Gay Marshall delights as Denise, singing the "Chanson" that provides The Baker's Wife with its ongoing musical theme. Cynthia Darlow is delightful as the long-suffering housewife Hortense, and Joy Franz hilarious as the spinster Therese. Mitchell Greenberg is warmly believable as a fussy school master, Laurent Giroux is thoroughly wining as a roguish marquis who keeps three "nieces" in high style, and Kevin Del Aguila is a scene-stealer as the genial town drunk.

Have you have had it with the adolescent "jukebox musicals" flooding Broadway this season? Are you looking for a show that is warm, mature, intelligent and melodic? Then set your sites on New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, where The Baker's Wife has settled in for an all too brief run. I can't help hoping that this heartwarming show will now get the legion of regional and amateur productions it has so long deserved.

Note: This limited run ended on May 15, 2005.

Link to: Paper Mill's Website

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