The Baker's Wife at Union Theatre
Not quite a French fancy ...
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To paraphrase the tagline of his successful musical about a green-skinned girl, ‘a whole lot happened to Stephen Schwartz before Wicked dropped in’. His 1976 musical The Baker’s Wife (based on the French film of the same name – though in French), with a book by Fiddler on the Roof’s Joseph Stein, was a notorious flop in the US, with both leading actors replaced, endless re-rehearsing and backstage spats.
The West End production didn’t fare any better, but those courageous musical resurrectionists at the Union Theatre have warmed up their ovens on this one. Set in mid-‘30s rural France (wine, women and berets), the show is the story of Geneviève (Lisa Stokke), the wife of the title, who arrives with husband Aimable (Michael Matus) to save a village desperate for bread. There is an extended metaphor (and much singing) about bread being symbolic of life, and this, combined with the dullness of village life, means their arrival causes a stir. Soon, however, our Wife has her world shaken by the
rakish Dominique (Matthew Goodgame), who steals her away. It is up to the villagers, condemning as they are of Geneviève’s betrayal, to keep Aimable baking – such is their love of carbs, both literal and metaphoric.
Though Michael Strassen’s production looks handsome, particularly against Robyn Wilson-Owen’s pallid back-wall mural, the story fails to convince. The passion between Geneviève and Dominique lacks any sort of danger or deeply felt pain, and the reconciliation of husband and wife comes far too
late in the story, after a misplaced (though terribly well delivered) sideways glance at the village women. While the moral of the story seems to be that if an older man marries a younger woman he
should expect her to stray (even when the older man is, in this production, rather more handsome than his predecessors in the role), we never feel the sung-about ‘heat’ between the young lovers. Matthew Goodgame struts around the stage, puffing his chest like Beauty and the Beast’s Gaston while Lisa
Stokke’s anaemic Geneviève never really soars, feeling too detached and lonely, even in the beautiful and widely covered torch song ‘Meadowlark’. The saving grace is Michael Matus, a recent stand-out in Lend Me A Tenor, whose rich, resonant voice fills the Union, in turns both charming and mournful as the wounded Baker.
Matus and a strong ensemble make the most of the thin material. Ricky Butt as a wistful cafe owner and Mark Turnbull as the deliciously fruity Marquis stand out – and those with a taste for the pretty chorus boy won’t be disappointed either. There is beautiful work from Chris Mundy on piano and
Colin Clark’s plangent cello, which is worth the entry price alone – as good a musical duo as you’ll find on the Fringe.
I’ve tried to resist the bread puns for a whole review, but sadly, this one never quite rises.
The Baker’s Wife is at the Union Theatre, London until 15 October.
Words: Dan Usztan