Review: The Baker's Wife by Alchemy Theatre Company
by Michael Meigs
There's an achingly beautiful love story at the center of The Baker's Wife. Sebastian Vitale as Aimable Castaignet the baker, newly arrived in the tiny village of Concorde, is quiet, a bit battered, and absolutely devoted to his young wife. Sarah Marie Curry's Geneviève was battered emotionally somewhere else along the way and rescued by the baker, much older; she's withdrawn, correct with him but short-spoken with others in Concorde. Love yearns in both directions -- Aimable for Geneviève, Geneviève for something as yet unfulfilled. Perhaps these two weren't meant for one another, but they have wound up together. There's a sense that catastrophe is stealthily approaching.
Vitale and Curry are absolutely convincing in these roles. Demeanor, vocal interpretation, and Stephanie Slayton's costuming deepen and enrich these central characters. A plot description for another production calls the baker gregarious; Vitale plays him instead with great interiority, a man who's contained and firmly stoic. The power of his performance lies in that restraint and indirection. The same is true of Sarah-Marie Curry, opposite him. Usually a performer of quicksilver emotion, here Curry is tentative and extremely vulnerable. Her blue headband and blue dress almost evoke the attire of a novice in a convent.
Leslie Gaar as Denise, the quietly embittered proprietress of the café, sets the scene for us at the opening, addressing us directly. Her quiet, plaintive anthem "Chanson" speaks about how nothing ever really changes. You know from that moment that change is programmed in this story.
The Baker's Wife is the second in Alchemy Theatre's series of The Ones That Got Away, musical theatre pieces that reached the stage, often as far as Broadway, but after relatively brief runs failed to reach the launch trajectory that would have established them in the firmament of the American musical theatre canon. These are pieces you may not have the chance to see again. They almost never reappear in New York or national touring shows. Perhaps in educational theatre as a faculty member's pet project but never in the community theatres that feed local imaginations.
I think I can understand why this whimsical little show simply did not catch on, despite the depth of the relationship at its core and a couple of stunning musical numbers. It's modeled on a 1938 film by Marcel Pagnol, the admired novelist (Jean de Florette, Manon des Sources) who in 1946 was elected to the Académie Française, the first film maker to be so honored. Pagnol's oeuvre includes loving depictions of the quirks of country life, and his 1938 film La femme du boulanger fits squarely into that category. Keep in mind the fact that the French and French cultural life were torn apart by the second world war; Pagnol evoked for readers and cinema goers simpler, easier, safer and warmer times that in fact may never have actually existed.
The central story is decorated by the denizens of the village, all embodying stereotypes of isolated country life. The mayor is a jovial marquis living happily with his "niece," a mistress; Pierre and Domergue, men with neighboring farmsteads, are constantly at odds; a prim spinster given to male attire regularly listens to disputes at the local café; the young man Dominique (Cameron La Brie), chauffeur to the marquis, makes light of everything and is immensely interested in Geneviève; the village priest and the village schoolmaster bicker; café owner Claude and wife Denise soured upon one another long ago. Claude refuses to speak directly with dour Barnaby because of a feud initiated by their ancestors; Barnaby shuns him as well and for good measure is rude, brutish, and domineering with his own wife Hortense.
This profusion of comic conflicts is established in Act I as villagers impatiently await Aimable, who was recruited to replace their recently deceased former baker (how inconsiderate of the predecessor to neglect his duties!). All are intrigued to find the new man accompanied by a much younger woman, and none more than Dominique, the marquis's driver, who insists on addressing Geneviève as "Mademoiselle."
Sarah-Marie Curry delivers the climax of Act I with "Meadowlark," the gorgeous sung parable of a wild bird kept in a cage by an old king. Her performance knocked me over, almost literally, for I had no idea this number was in The Baker's Wife. I'd heard it many times, for Dawn Upshaw performs it on her album The Songs that Got Away. Curry's quietly desolate decision song in Act II "Where Is the Warmth?" is less vivid but equally moving.
Aimable is so devastated by Geneviève's disappearance that he refuses to acknowledge it. He also refuses to bake. Deprived of their daily bread, villagers become desperate. Their united efforts to bring back the wayward wife become the basis for the resolution of virtually all existing conflicts in Concorde. The plot is a bit like a magician's pass that causes all the knots in a cord to disappear.
That plot scheme is amusing and a bit cute, and it fit Schwartz's approach to theatre (Godspell and Pippin before this 1976 show, a raft of Disney work later in his career). Still, as something of a reluctant Francophile, I found it vaguely unsettling. Think of Jones, Hope, and Wooten, the prolific threesome who have populated community theatre with absurd tales of the silly inhabitants of places such as the imagined tiny town of Fayro, Texas. Southerners and Texans cherish JHW plays about smalltown grotesques but might well take offense if, say, theatres in Seattle or Boston were to stage those same works.
On a U.S. stage, Pagnol's quirky villagers become caricatures of the French, funny but at the same time demeaning because they reinforce stereotypes. The rough equivalent to The Baker's Wife in Texas theatre might be a profoundly sensitive play by Horton Foote embedded within one of JHW's comic satires.
This reflection isn't meant to detract in the least from the Alchemy Theatre staging or the achievements of director Michael Cooper or pianist and music director Dr. Ellie Jarret Shattles, who's cloistered at center stage in a niche between the boulangerie and the café.
Some changes in our lives are trivial, others are profound. The fundamental change in this work is in the relationship between Aimable and Geneviève. After a sharp rupture and unexpected return, by the end of the musical things are the same but different, even though neither is willing to speak directly of them. There's always pain within comedy; in The Baker's Wife that pain teaches us something.
A tip of the hat to designer Paige Hoover and photographer James Redondo for their apt and artful takeoff on the poster for Pagnol's film La femme du boulanger.
May 05 - June 11, 2023
130 Pedernales Street
Austin, TX, 78702
May 5 – June 11 , 2023 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm with Sunday matinees at 2 pm
Mastrogeorge Theatre, 130 Pedernales, Austin
Tickets $55 VIP, $40 general admission, $30 students, plus service fee, available online HERE