Review: Alchemy Theatre’s The Baker’s Wife

Musical’s Provençale charm and wit lie just beneath the surface

Sebastian Vitale as Aimable Castagnet in Alchemy Theatre’s The Baker’s Wife (Photo by James Redondo)

Old, failed Broadway musicals seem to be Alchemy Theatre’s forte of late. Last season included Mack & Mabel, which lasted a mere 66 performances on Broadway in 1974, and its current offering, The Baker’s Wife, closed during out-of-town tryouts on its way to Broadway in 1976. You have to love a theatre that takes in strays.

The Baker’s Wife is set in an idyllic French village in Provence in the 1930s, where the townsfolk have found themselves a new baker – the middle-aged Aimable (Sebastian Vitale) and his attractive young wife, Geneviève (Sarah-Marie Curry) – after months of baguette deprivation since the passing of their previous boulanger. When Geneviève is lured away by a handsome young local (Cameron La Brie), the baker loses all zest for life and refuses to bake, causing the constantly bickering villagers to work as one in order to bring back his wife.

Despite the play’s poor track record, this French fable wrapped in a romantic comedy comes with an impressive pedigree. Based on Marcel Pagnol’s delightful 1938 film La femme du boulanger, the musical was written by Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof) with charming music and clever lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked). All this suggests untapped potential.

And so a revamped version of the musical was produced in 2005 after 30 years of fine-tuning by the show’s creators, which resulted in two better-late-than-never revelations. The first was that the story, despite its title, was less about the baker’s wife’s indiscretions and more about how the small community of gluten lovers respond to it. The second was that the work worked better as a chamber piece on a small stage with just a few musicians.

Alchemy Theatre’s earnest and handsomely mounted production follows suit but, on opening night, never managed to bring all the play’s Provençale charm and wit to the surface. It was not nearly as delightful as it was meant to be.

Vitale as the baker is not to blame. He displays his character’s passion for baking, blind adoration for his wife, and devastation upon her departure with great authenticity. And his lovely rendition of the ballad “If I Have to Live Alone,” accompanied by Ellie Jarrett Shattles on piano, is particularly heartbreaking because he so successfully finds his character’s heart.

Curry – previously paired with Vitale in the title roles of Mack & Mabel – never does the same as the baker’s wife. She beautifully performs some of the show’s best-written tunes, including “Meadowlark,” but never manages the emotions the lyrics claim the character possesses. Her Geneviève seems despondent from start to finish, which is the stuff of something Chekhovian and not romantic comedy. It adds unnecessary weight to the production.

Ensemble members as villagers, adorned in character-defining costuming by Stephanie Slayton, are able-voiced but only some (Yanis Kalnins, Christine Glenn, Natalie Joy, Nicholaus Weindel, Rafael Virguez, and La Brie) offer fully fleshed portrayals of the comedic caricatures they’ve been handed. Others either overplay their roles (Tom Swift, Max Green, and Eli Mendenhall), which results in humor at the cost of authenticity, or underplay them (Noah Steele, Janell Bruneau, Leslie Gaar, and Ericka Pugliese), resulting in tentative choices. It is in their nonresponse to what’s transpiring that some of the play’s charm goes unrealized, witty lines get lost in inertia, and the frequent barbs thrown by husbands at their wives come across as particularly cruel because they lack a comic reaction.

These things occur on director Michael Cooper’s watch, but so does all the cleverly staged action taking place on the lovely rustic village square created by scene shop Lucky Giraffe. Scenic design includes still-frame projections of sunrises and moonlit nights at the center of the set that nicely establish a sense of time and place. But their realism is a mismatch with the whole French fable vibe.

Like the original play itself, this production has untapped potential given its impressive pedigree of performers. It will be interesting to see if, during its run, all of the play’s Provençale charm and wit that now lie just beneath the surface of this production rise to the top.

Alchemy Theatre’s The Baker’s Wife

130 Pedernales Ste. 318-B
Through June 11
Running time: 3 hrs.

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The Alchemy Theatre, The Baker's Wife

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