Baked Into Every Loaf is Love

The Baker's Wife (Actors Co-Op)userpic=theatre_musicalsMusicals are interesting beasts. Some get to be very well known through success on Broadway — either by the awards they win, the tours they produce, their financial success, or their performances at the Tonys. Some (especially parody musicals) get to be well known through their off-Broadway success and their cast recordings. Some just produce great cast recordings and stay small and popular in the regional markets. Then there’s that fourth class: the class that becomes well known precisely because of their failure; their creation stories having become the stuff of legend. These musicals get revived more as curiosity pieces. Occasionally, the revival overcomes whatever the reason was for the original failure; sometimes these revivals go on to great success.

One of these “notable failure” musicals was Steven Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Joseph Stein (book)’s “The Baker’s Wife“, based off the movie ” La Femme du Boulanger“. Schwartz was coming off the successes of Godspell and Pippin; Stein was the book writer of Fiddler on the Roof. They developed Baker’s Wife and did a tour of the US with Topol and Carole Demas, who were eventually replaced by Paul Sorvino and Patti LuPone as the leads. The show played Los Angeles in May 1976 (alas, I didn’t see it (or if I did, I don’t remember it) — I was still in high school at the time, and not part of my parent’s LACLO subscription), and the Kennedy Center in November 1976. But the producer’s pulled it before Broadway, with never a good explanation. A studio cast album was made with some excerpts that preserved about 60% of the score; thank’s to this, awareness of the show never died. This album was primarily excerpts; it didn’t give the full score, and was not necessarily in order. But there were some songs that still became staples; most notably, “Meadowlark“. The show became, like Bock/Harnick’s She Loves Me, a show more appreciated because of its score than people having seen the show. Attempts to remount the show would happen occasionally, but it has never made it to Broadway. Last night we saw one such revival at The Actor’s Co-Op (FB) in Hollywood. I’m very glad we did.

The story is a fable, with an unstated moral. It is 1935 in a very small rural village in Provence, France. This is a village where nothing ever changes beyond the occasionally birth and deaths. There are quarrels — but they are never resolved. The bickering provides too much entertainment. The married men (Claude and Barnaby) bicker and put down their wives (Denise and Hortense, respectively), partially because they are pointedly not speaking with each other.  Doumergue bickers with Pierre because Pierre’s oak tree shades the sun from Antoine’s spinach. The priest (M. Le Cure) argues with the town teacher (M. Martine) for his embrace of logic and reason, and with the mayor (M. Marquis) for his embrace of passion with his three “neices”, Nicole, Inez, and Simone). The town drunk, Antoine, argues with everyone, and unmarried Therese watches on disapprovingly. The town is eagerly awaiting the arrival of their new baker: their previously one having died 7 weeks ago, having not arranged for a replacement in advance. Eventually, the baker (Aimable Castagnet) arrives, with his significantly younger and lovely wife, Genevieve. The town cannot understand why the two are together, but loves the resulting bread. One of Marquis’ men, his handyman Dominique, becomes smitten with Genevieve. With the help of his friend Philippe, he woos her and eventually convinces her to leave her husband, the baker. When she does, the baker initially doesn’t believe her — she has gone off to visit her mother. But with her gone, he can’t bake — and the town suffers. He goes on a drunk, and the men try to convince him he is better off without a wife. But he doesn’t believe them, so they organize to hunt for her. Most of the men don’t find her, but eventually she is found and convinced to come back. In the process, the various bickering in the town starts to resolve itself. She returns, and the baker refuses to hear her confession, telling her she has just gone to her mother. The baker’s cat Pom Pom, who had also run away, returned: the baker publicly scolds the cat summarizing everything the wife has done, but forgives her… and she forgives him, and the town has bread again.

I probably didn’t do this synopsis justice — you can also find one on Wikipedia, at MTI, or at the Guide to Musical Theatre … or you could read the libretto.

Watching the show, I tried to figure out how and why it failed. Initially, I thought it might just be a predictable plot. After all, from the minute you mean Genevieve, you know she is going to leave, and that it will destroy the Baker. Very predictable. Very unpleasant. But the show by the end redeemed itself and gave across a good message.

For a time, I thought it might have been Schwartz’ equivalent of Cy Coleman’s Welcome to the Club.  The way the men treat their wives is abhorrent, and the attitude towards woman (especially in the song “The Word’s Luckiest Man”) is horrible. It seemed to be a commentary from the authors about woman, and thus doomed to failure just like Coleman’s Welcome to the Club. Club was an extremely bitter musical about divorce and divorce jail. But as the show went on, this attitude turned around. Women started standing up for themselves, and there began to be reconciliation.

Eventually, I decided the problems was more the time and place of the show. This is not a show for a very large Broadway house, yet with the cast size it needs such a house for financial success. It was best in a small to mid-size house. The story — focusing on love and forgiveness — may also not have fit well in the cynical 1970s when the country was in the mood for neither. This show could come back with a successful production, if handled right.

So how, in the end, do I assess the story? I think ultimately this show is about love, and how love grows and does its magic when it moves from selfish to selfless love. Consider that the villagers learn how to move past their quarreling only when they move from their selfish focus to a selfless focus of finding Genevieve. Genevieve is initially with the Baker to get away from an affair with a married man; she separates easily when thinking only of herself and her pleasures. She finds real love and happiness when she comes back to the relationship and discovers the selfless love of being there for the Baker. The Baker finds the long-term love he needs through forgiveness (which, by definition, is putting someone else before you). The show also demonstrates the power of forgiveness and understanding, and of actually listening. Great messages.

One additional note: This musical makes one other statement about baked goods: they taste better when they are baked with love.

In short, I went in expecting to find a weak book was what doomed this show, and came out loving the underlying story.

I think part of the success is attributable to the director, Richard Israel (FB). Israel has a knack for coming up with great treatments of musicals that are either not well known or problematic. I loved his approaches on local versions of shows such as The Burnt Part BoysBig, AssassainsHaving It AllOnce Upon a Mattress, Kiss Me Kate, Falsettos, or an intimate version of Gypsy.   Israel handled the small space well, transitioning from the cafe to the bakery easily. I also noticed what I guess were the little touches: the expression on a face in the background, the reaction of a town member to a statement. The body language. As I’ve noted many times, I’m not an actor and have never been on a stage without a Powerpoint behind me. I have trouble separating where the actor’s experience ends and the director’s guidance starts. But I just have the sense here of a strong collaborative effort: Israel bringing ideas and vision, and working with the actors to realize them. However, the division, it worked well.

In a musical, the choreography and movement goes along closely with the direction. Julie Hall (FB), the choreographer, worked the small space well. This show doesn’t have a lot of large production numbers, but the ones they had worked well — I particularly enjoyed the movement and dance in “Bread”, “Mercie Madame”, and “The World’s Luckiest Man”.

In the lead acting positions were Greg Baldwin (FB) [Aimable Castagnet] and Chelle Denton (FB) [Genevieve Castagnet]. Baldwin’s Baker was a great everyman — middle aged, average looks, an easygoing personality. Denton’s Genevieve, in contrast, was a knockout. She didn’t have the build of the typical starting actress, but had a lovely and touching form and face — and particularly smile — that just made you melt. You agreed with the townspeople: how could this lovely thing end up with the everyman? In pondering this, I thought about my post yesterday, with an article on how it is life experiences that shape what people find attractive. Denton’s Genevieve was a woman who didn’t know what love was, and how it was distinguished from attraction and lust. Baldwin’s Baker was safe, and that safety was what was attractive. Genevieve brought this across well in her two key songs: “Meadowlark” in the Act I and “Where is the Warmth?” in Act II. In the first, she makes the decision to run off — to have the pleasure while she could, not thinking about the consequences; in the second, she sings of the realization that the physical may provide the heat but not the warmth of safety. Denton’s ability to convey this through the songs we create. The Baker, Aimable, was less of a solo singing role, although he did impart his message well in “If I Have to Live Alone” — he’d been alone before, and the memory of a love is sometime enough. What was best about Baldwin’s Aimable was his face and reaction, best seen in his reactions to “The World’s Luckiest Man” and “Feminine Companionship”… and in his final monologue as part of the Finale. Sitcom cinematographers understand this: humor often comes from the reaction; Baldwin had his reactions down pat.

The earworm of the show belongs to Treva Tegtmeire (FB)’s Denise. In addition to getting to sing the lovely ballad “Chanson” that keeps repeating throughout the show, Tegtmeiere has some great reaction shots as the wife of Jeffrey Markle (FB)’s Claude, particularly when Markle makes some of his more offensive lines about his wife.

Nick Echols (FB)’s Dominique has the right handsome looks to be attractive to Genevieve, and demonstrated he had a lovely singing voice in his “Serenade”, as well as in “Proud Lady”. It was nice to see Echols again — it is always great when we see actors from Repertory East Playhouse [REP] (FB) in Newhall (we saw Nick in Avenue Q back in January 2015) getting wonderful exposure to the rest of the LA Theatre community.

The remainder of the townspeople generally formed an ensemble that makes it difficult to single out any particular characters. Difficult, but not impossible. Jeffrey Markle (FB)’s Claude was not only Denise’s husband, but in a perpetual argument with Michael Worden (FB)’s Barnaby. The two portrayed this argument well — you truly believed they weren’t talking to each other for reasons they didn’t understand (which made the second act transformation work well). Worden was also strong in his interaction with Tracey Bunka’s Hortense — his wife. Worden’s Barnaby continually wouldn’t let her speak; Bunka captured the frustration quite well, which served her second act transition. Another arguing pair were Brian Dyer (FB)’s Pierre and Michael Riney (FB)’s Dourmergue. For these two, the argument was over spinach and trees, and it also came off believable (supporting their second act transition). Brandon Parrish (FB)’s Antoine was also notable in his comic portrayals of a headstrong man with no filter: I particularly enjoyed his “cuckold” imagery.

The Teacher, Kelly Brighton (FB) [M. Martine] had an interesting look and facial expression that drew the eye, and handled the rationality of the role well. Contrasting and conflicting with him was Tim Hodgin (FB)’s priest, M. LeCure, who gave off the correct amount of self-righteous authority and religious babble (and whose pronouncements were particularly interesting considering this came from the author of Godspell). The third element in opposition of M. Martine and M. LeCure was the hedonistic M. le Marquis (which the program lists as being portrayed by two actors: Christopher Maikish (FB) and Stephen Van Dorn (FB) — so I have no idea who we saw). Maikish or VanDorn was fun to watch with the role — it was clear he was having fun with the teasing and the presentation of that point of view. His “nieces” (where a niece is defined as the daughter of a brother, and aren’t all men brothers?) were Lindsey Schuberth (FB) [Simone], Greyson Chadwick (FB) [Inez], and Rachel Hirshee (FB) [Nicole]. These roles were written more as eye candy — and as such, I expected a little more unison is movement and action for some reason. They were provided the opportunity to break out of the undifferentiated eye candy in the song “Feminine Companionship” — which they did quite well — and in the scene where it was just the women. As Therese, Natalie Hope MacMillan (FB) was the town spinster, with predictable reactions to all that was going on. Lastly, Larray Grimes (FB) portrayed Philippe, Domininique’s friend and guitar player for Chanson.

Music direction was provided Jake Anthony (FB), who also conducted the on-stage band and played piano. Rachel Fastenow (FB) was next to him on flute and recorder, with Shaun Valentine (FB) on the other side on percussion (which included drums, washboards, triangles and bells). On the other side of the stage were Jay Rubottom (FB) on bass and Brian Manchen (FB) on accordian. About my only musical complaint is something out of control of the musicians: the volume on the flute tended to overwhelm the voices on stage, particularly Chelle Denton’s. As you can’t lower the volume of the flute, Denton needs to work on upping her volume at tad.

Finally, we turn to the technical and miscellaneous credits. The scenic design of Rich Rose (FB) worked well: tables in front to establish the place of the cafe, some sliding panels with French town scenes,  and the back with the bakery tables and bakery prices (in French ₣). These integrated with the properties of Hanna Mitchell/FB well. I’ll note that the properties include a lot of different styles of bread — if they are using actual bread, they must go through a fair amount of it! The sound of Warren Davis (FB) worked well — there wasn’t any amplification, but I did notice occasional background noises.  Bill E. Kickbush‘s lighting design worked well to establish mood and mostly blended in; however, the LED lights facing the audience at the back were overly noticeable. Wendell C. Carmichael/FB‘s costumes combined with Krys Fehervari (FB)’s hair and makeup design to create a believable town of the era; Chelle Denton’s dress was particularly lovely.  Rounding out the credits were: Heather Chesley (FB) [Artistic Chairperson], David Elzer/Demand PR (FB) [Publicity]; Kate Harmon/FB [Stage Manager]; Rory Patterson (FB) [Production Manager]; Michael D. H. Phillips/FB [Assistant Director]; Hanna Mitchell/FB [Assistant Stage Manager]; and Kimi Walker (FB) [Producer].

One additional note: This production has available for purchase as snacks the typical soda, water, chips, and candy. This is a missed opportunity. This show makes the audience hungry for fresh baked goodies for purchase. They could make some funds easily by having available for sale some fresh tarts, sweet-stuffed croissants, and brioche.

The Baker’s Wife continues at The Actor’s Co-Op (FB) in Hollywood through October 25, 2015. More information on the Actors Co-Op Page. Tickets are available online. It is sold out on Goldstar; discount tickets are no longer available through LA Stage Tix. What this says are: most shows are sold out, so get your tickets now while you can.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: October was being held for the NoHo Fringe Festival (FB); they’ve finally announced some shows but nothing yet is of interest. Given their delays, I started booking weekends with non-fringe shows. Next weekend brings “The Best of Enemies” at The Colony Theatre (FB). The third weekend of October takes us to Thousand Oaks for “Damn Yankees” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The fourth weekend of October brings “Uncle Vanya” at Antaeus Theatre Company (FB) in North Hollywood. Halloween weekend sees me at CSUN for Urinetown, and then both of us out in Simi Valley for “The Addams Family” at the Simi Cultural Arts Center (Simi Actors Rep Theatre (FB)). The following weekend sees us back in Simi for the Nottingham Festival (FB) on November 7. We then go out to Perris for “A Day Out with Thomas” at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB) on November 11 (I can’t skip seeing my buddy Thomas and his friend Percy). The bookings for November conclude with Deathtrap at REP East (FB) on November 14; the rest of the month is currently open. December brings “Humble Boy” at The Colony Theatre (FB) the first weekend, followed by a mid-week stint as a producer, when we present The Nigerian Spam Scam Scam as the dinner entertainment at the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC). December also has dates held for “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and “If/Then” at the Pantages (FB). There are also a few other interesting productions I’m keeping my eyes open for. The first is the Fall show at The Blank Theatre (FB), “Something Truly Monstrous”, sounds wonderful — however, it runs through November 8, so squeezing it in would mean a double weekend. The show at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB) also sounds like an interesting exploration of clutter —  but “The Object Lesson” only runs through October 4, and I’m not sure we can squeeze it in. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.