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AISLE SAY Philadelphia


Book by Joseph Stein
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Orchestrations by David Cullen
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
Based on the film "La Femme du Boulanger"
by Marcel Pagnol & Jean Giono
Arden Theatre, 40 North 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
Playing through June 10, 2001
Website: Box Office: (215) 922-1122

Reviewed by Claudia Perry

For its final offering this season, the Arden Theatre Company has chosen a sweet, little musical with a big heart, "The Baker's Wife". Based on the French film, "La Femme du Boulanger", by Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giono, it tells the story of Aimable the baker, an older man, and his new, young wife, Genvieve. They come to the small village of Concorde in Provence, a town that has been without a bakery for months, to set up shop. The villagers are elated with their new baker and his wonderful bread until pretty Genvieve runs off with Dominique, the young, handsome handyman. This drives Aimable to despair and he can no longer bake. The villagers then take it upon themselves to bring back Genvieve so that tranquillity and their daily bread will be restored. The show is a bittersweet tale of the perils of passion and the measure of real love.

Created in 1976, "The Baker's Wife" closed out of town never reaching Broadway. However, a cast album was recorded which helped the show attain a cult following in theatre circles. Fans of the show will be familiar with its most notable songs: "Meadowlark", "Proud Lady", "Chanson" and "If I Have to Live Alone". In 1988, Trevor Nunn directed a revival in the West End. It has also had a recent workshop production at the Roundabout Theatre in New York. Apparently, the writers, Stephen Schwartz and Joseph Stein are still working on this piece and have hopes of its moving forward.

According to the Marketing Director, Gary Bramnick, this Arden production is close to the London version. (The song, "Buzz, Buzz, Buzz" from Act I and a scene and song between the lovers at the top of Act II have been cut.) For this particular production there are slight dialogue changes made by the bookwriter and slight technical musical changes made by the composer.

The set by James Kronzer is a delightful, peach colored, French village, reminding one immediately of the remote hamlet in the film, "Chocolat". There is no overture and the opening number is initially accompanied by an acoustic guitar. This first song, well sung by Mary Martello, is the beautiful "Chanson". This melody still lingers with me even days after the performance. This song opens Act I and Act II and closes the show. As staged at the top of the show, however, the number seems static. Once the other characters arrive onstage, the story unfolds and momentum builds.

It may seem amazing, but there are 19 characters in this piece. It is a testament to good writing how these peripheral characters are successfully intertwined throughout the story without seeming a distraction from the three main characters, the baker, his wife and the handyman.

Sharon Sampieri does a nice job as Genevieve, the wife and sings with a sweet power. However, one wishes that her through-line had been stronger. Jeffrey Coon as handsome, Dominique, sings the pants off his big song, "Proud Lady". Unfortunately, he telegraphs to us too early that he is going to be a cad. Richard Ruiz, as M. le Marquis, the mayor, stands out in his buoyant and poignant portrayal of the town's bon vivant. Ben Dibble as M. le Cure (the priest) and Sean Baldwin as M. Martine (the teacher) are also of note. Though Tom Teti, as the Baker, manages to win our sympathy because of his inherent warmth as an actor, his characterization lacks focus and an arc to bolster up these natural abilities.

This is the first time I have ever seen a production of this show, and I was most pleasantly surprised. I felt that it all worked except that the placement of the act break came a little late. A more powerful Act I closer would be Genvieve's singing of "Meadowlark" as she runs off to her lover–allowing Act II to begin with what is now the Act I curtain song: "Any-Day-Now-Day", the Baker's attempt the next day to pump himself into optimism about her imminent return, upon his discovering her flight. But this is a fairly minor caveat, all things considered.

For I assure you, you will still like all the characters in this warm-hearted show, and will be happy to go on their all-too-human, musical journey with them.

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