“Cake in the oven, champagne on ice
Much as I hate to I may even shave twice”
The Baker’s Wife with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Joseph Stein is a musical that managed to develop something of a cult following despite flopping in the West End in 1989 and never actually having run on Broadway. Director Michael Strassen has now given it a rare outing at the small-scale powerhouse that is the Union Theatre. Based on the Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giano film La Femme Du Boulanger, the show is all about what happens in a rural French community when Geneviève the young wife of the village baker leaves her husband Aimable for a sexy piece of rough. He loses his baking mojo which sufficiently outrages the villagers to put aside their multifarious squabbles to come together and try to reunite the couple.
There is usually a reason that shows are left on the shelf and true to form, The Baker’s Wife pretty shows us why. Schwartz’s score is largely strong with some genuinely sublime moments but the book is stolid, unimaginative and fatally fragmented. Too much time is spent on the villagers around the love triangle but there’s so many of them, all contributing to the larger metaphor of the show, that none get a fair crack of the whip. And consequently, there’s not enough room to really focus on the main protagonists either. Indeed, Geneviève’s story doesn’t come across as particularly sympathetic at all, it is so hurried: it is revealed that she married Aimable on the rebound from being rejected by her married lover but she’s going to put up with him. Having left him shortly after singing this, she then dumps her new paramour after five minutes on the run and a roll in the hay – one can’t help but feel the baker is better off without her! Matters are not helped by an additional horribly overdone metaphor of her cat running away and returning contemporaneously, subtle it is not.
But Strassen’s production doesn’t always help itself either. Michael Matus, available due to the early closure of Lend Me A Tenor, is canny casting as the baker with his rumpled good looks and excellent voice but, and being as gentlemanly as I can about it, Lisa Stokke as his wife just does not seem to be sufficiently younger than him to cause all the comments. If every other line from a villager weren’t “My God, she’s so young for him” one would be hard-pressed to notice. Stokke does act superbly and sing beautifully though, so is well cast in every other respect. And then there’s Matthew Goodgame as Dominique, the sexy villager for whom she tumbles. He’s caught a little bit between a show that can’t decide if its protagonist is just after an illicit liaison with something hot or whether something deeper in her has been awakened by this man: Goodgame’s Colgate smile and tanned abs fulfilling the first quite easily but never really convincing that the second is an option.
And then there’s the villagers, a set of ‘characters’ all with their own little character traits, mainly bickering, which tiresomely run on throughout the show – indeed they end up being the focus of the second act – adding little but trying the patience considerably. Ricky Butt’s Denise is the best here, given something of a narrator role and the warmth with which she passes commentary, especially on the foibles of men, is one of the show’s highlights. But elsewhere odd pieces of staging and ill-advised moves into choreography and meta-theatre fall flat and given such caricatures by the material, the company struggle to make us care for their concerns. And why is the bread all wrapped in cling film? Given that a pint of milk is thrown onto the floor later on, I’d’ve said it was worth sweeping up the crumbs at the end rather than the odd image of people caressing shrink-wrapped rolls and baguettes.
Musically it does sound lovely with MD Chris Mundy on the piano supported by a solo cello and the odd guitar but for a show with such a large cast, there’s a dearth of effective ensemble numbers that really make the most of the company. Only the finale really fires on all cylinders in this respect, voices coming from all sides, combining to beautiful effect, but it was too little too late for this reviewer.