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The Baker's Wife

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Here’s a pleasant enough rarity: a musical by Joseph (Fiddler on the Roof) Stein and Stephen (Godspell and Pippin) Schwartz that floundered on its way to Broadway in the mid-1970s and was presented, not too persuasively, in the West End over twenty years ago with Trevor Nunn directing his then spouse, Sharon Lee Hill, as the runaway wife of a Provenҫal baker.

On that occasion, at the Phoenix Theatre, we even had a smell-around effect of baking loaves, but Michael Strassen’s Union revival – he really does these small-scale re-heats very well – has no buns in the oven, nor indeed does the baker’s wife.

Instead, there’s a smoky mistral in the air and a lot of lolling around among villagers who’ve been needing their dough for several weeks; they’re a loaf-hungry lot.

The new middle-aged baker, played with an odd mixture of wry (rye?) charm and stupidity by Michael Matus, has a beautiful young wife – Lisa Stokke sings as prettily as she looks – who is easily seduced by Matthew Goodgame’s good-looking local hunk. But a roll in the hay makes her yearn once more for her rolls with butter.

Stein’s book is based on the stories of Marcel Pagnol which were turned into those wonderful films Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources; Stein and Schwartz do a funny “French thing” on the material which somehow cheapens it; that wouldn’t matter too much if Schwartz’s music and lyrics were anything like his best. They’re charming and civilised, but that’s all.

There’s only one really good song – “Meadowlark” — which Stokke does delightfully, spreading her wings metaphorically and soaring from an initial crouching posture. The villagers go to town on the chorales, well led by Ricky Butt’s peasant hostess, whose own dried-up marriage to Ian Mowat’s crusty bread-winner in the local café runs in parallel crisis to the main Chaucerian escapade.

Other running sores in the village, such as the row between neighbours over an oak tree shading a spinach patch, are also smoothed over, and the locals get on with their lives, and musical comedy priorities, admirably egged on by musical director Chris Mundy on keyboards and Colin Clark on cello.


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