Actors Co-op breathes fresh new life into Stephen Schwartz and Joseph Stein’s largely forgotten The Baker’s Wife, still a delicate, tuneful, très charmant gem of a musical some forty or so years after Angelinos first discovered it in a “pre-Broadway” tour that never quite made it to the Great White Way.
Hopes were doubtless high back in 1976 when The Baker’s Wife played the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, its composer-lyricist having already scored a pair of hits with Godspell in ’71 and Pippin the following year. Book writer Stein was justly famed for Fiddler On The Roof, and his collaboration with the 35-years-younger Schwartz had some already proven source material, Marcel Pagnole’s classic French film La Femme Du Boulanger, National Board Of Review’s Best Foreign Film of 1940.
Though The Baker’s Wife folded before it could make it to Broadway, Angelinos might have had a second chance to savor its many charms four years ago, but a big-stage production by Reprise got cancelled, after which the theater company itself almost immediately bit the dust, just one of many reasons musical comedy lovers can celebrate Actors Co-op’s irresitible revival.
Plotwise, The Baker’s Wife can be summed up in a single sentence:
A middle-aged baker and his much younger (and très belle) wife set up shop in a provincial French town circa 1935, whereupon she promptly finds herself wooed by a sexy local handyman closer to her own age.
Will luscious baker’s wife and her hunky jack-of-all-trades run away together, and if they do, will Genevieve eventually pick baker Aimable’s warmth over handyman Dominique’s heat?
The answer to the above question matters far less at Actors Co-op than The Baker’s Wife’s exquisite score, its thoroughly delightful cast of characters (most of whom have been carrying on feuds for years if not decades), the production’s all-around outstanding performances, and some showstopping choreography—the whole shebang under the inspired direction of Richard Israel.
Songs don’t get any more gorgeous than “Chanson,” ”Gifts Of Love,” “If I Have To Live Alone,” “Where Is The Warmth?” and the musical’s best-known “Meadowlark.” Add to that the stirring “Proud Lady,” the witty “If It Wasn’t For You/Her,” and the rousing ensemble numbers “Bread,” “Any-Day-Now Day,” and “The World’s Luckiest Man,” and you’ve got some of Stephen Schwartz’s most memorable words-and-music. (Several other songs appear to have been cut from this production.)
Longtime Co-op favorite Greg Baldwin could not make for a more marvelous Baker, opposite whom the radiant Chelle Denton more than fulfills the promise displayed in three years of Cal State Fullerton musicals. Both reveal first-rate vocal chops, and despite their several decades’ age difference, the sincerity and heart they give both Baker and Wife insure that their relationships never veers into “ick” territory.
As for the show’s supporting players, rarely has a featured ensemble had a more colorful set of roles for a “chorus” to sink their teeth into, with the evening’s two primest featured turns going to the divine Treva Tegtmeier as Denise, whose show-opening “Chanson” sets the evening’s delicate tone, and the Superman-handsome Nick Echols, whose looks, biceps, and tenor could turn any baker’s wife’s heart (and probably even a few bakers’ as well).
Factor in a trio of nubile groupies (Greyson Chadwick as Inez, Lindsey Schuberth as Simone, and Rachel Hirshee as Nicole), “nieces” to womanizing mayor M. Le Marquis (Stephen Van Dorn) in name only; Jeffrey Markle as Denise’s husband Claude, at whose café much of The Baker’s Wife unfolds; Kelly Brighton as opinionated teacher M. Martine and Natalie Hope Macmillan as Therese, the town’s unapologetic spinster; Michael Worden as bossy butcher Barnaby and Tracey Bunka as his browbeaten wife Hortense; Brandon Parrish as town blowhard Antoine and Tim Hodgin as local priest M. Le Cure; and Brian Dyer, Larray Grimes, and Michael Riney as villagers Pierre, Philippe, and Doumergue—and you’ve got as sterling an ensemble as any production could hope for.
Each and every one of the above sparkles and shines, in addition to displaying nimble footwork, jazz hands, and chorus-line kicks in “Bread,” the evening’s biggest showstopper in which choreographer Julie Hall pays delectable tribute to Michael Bennett, Busby Berkeley, Bob Fosse, and more, with the all-male “The World’s Luckiest Man” coming in a close second.
Musical direction kudos go to the always fabulous Jake Anthony and his onstage orchestra—Rachel Fastenow on flute and recorder, Brian Manchen on accordion, Jay Rubottom on bass, and Shaun Valentine on percussion, joined from time to time by cast member Grimes on guitar.
Scenic designer Rich Rose’s impressionist painter’s dream of an outdoor-indoor set with its picturesque town square and bakery filled with loves of bread and assorted knickknacks by property designer Hanna Mitchell has been exquisitely lit by Bill E. Kickbush, with costume designer Wendell C. Carmichael coming up with one absolutely lovely period confection after another, designs complemented by Krys Fehervari’s always spot-on hair and makeup. Warren Davis’s sound design is topnotch too, with snaps for making us believe pussy Pom Pom is all over the place.
The Baker’s Wife is produced by Kimi Walker. Michael D.H. Phillips is assistant director. Kate Harmon is stage manager and Mitchell is assistant stage managers. Christopher Maikish alternates with Van Dorn in the role of M. le Marquis.
110 In The Shade, Big River, Merrily We Roll Along, and 1776. Director Richard Israel and Actors Co-op have had quite a history making musicals together. The Baker’s Wife not only carries on that tradition, it does so as tantalizingly as one of of Aimable’s freshly baked baguettes. Can you say délicieux!
Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood.
September 25, 2015
Photos: Lindsay Schnebly