Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Faulkner: "The Baker's Wife"

The Baker's Wife has an admirable pedigree in its book by Joseph Stein and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, and has had a cult following for decades without ever having a Broadway run; and now director Jason Clark South is bringing it to Montgomery audiences at the Faulkner Dinner Theatre, with admirable musical direction by Marilyn Swears and the assorted talents of his cast of Faulkner students and alumni along with members of the local community.

Based on Jean Giono's 1932 novella Jean le Bleu and a 1938 film by Marcel Pagnol titled La Femme du Boulanger, this 2-hour and 40-minute production of The Baker's Wife recounts the tale of an older man and his young wife as he takes up the position of baker in a small town that has been without fresh bread since the departure of its former baker. -- Their December/May marriage will predictably be threatened, first by the townspeople's believing the baker's wife to be his daughter, and then by the persistence of a younger man for her affection.

Several sub-plots involve pairs of locals whose petty arguments disrupt the harmony of the town and afford the authors numerous occasions for social criticism on marriage and adultery, morality and expedience, religion and science. The frankness of the script in these matters is handled tentatively in this production, resulting in sanitizing the darker elements and making the story and its characters more innocent than the text indicates.

The story rambles a lot in analyzing themes of recrimination and forgiveness, and takes far too long to establish every relationship, making it hard to sustain interest; however, what holds it together is Schwartz's haunting musical score -- an array of solos, duets, quartets, and choruses -- and lyrics that both further the plot and provide emotional contexts for the characters.

The production is strongest in its principal roles of Amiable Castagnet [Chris Kelly], his wife Genevieve [Mara Woddail], and her young lover Dominique [Brandtley McDonald]; all are fine singers whose vocal range and clarity serve them well.

Mr. Kelly and Ms. Woddail establish the fragility of their relationship with his eagerness to please her and her unwillingness to hurt his feelings. Mr. Kelly's persistent optimism, and his "denial" that his wife has cheated on him, lives up to his name -- "amiable" [though both in the program and in the on-stage pronunciation becomes "Aimable", a more than unfortunate oversight; there are numerous mispronunciations throughout that a dialect coach could rectify].

Their Act I duets, "Merci Madame" and "Gifts of Love" are heartbreaking in counterpoint to Mr. McDonald's powerfully committed declaration of love for her in "Proud Lady". Impressive all.

Ms. Woddail's delivery of "Meadowlark", a climactic plot moment in which she weighs her options of staying with her husband or running off with the younger man, is a high point in the drama as well as in the performance. When she determines to run away, Amiable and the town almost collapse.

The fickle townspeople, more concerned with their bread supply than with the well-being of their new neighbors, provide occasional tidbits of humor, and their choral numbers fill the room vividly.

Amiable meanwhile seems resigned to his fate in "If I Have to Live Alone", a simply delivered, dispassionate declaration that now his life is meaningless. Well done, Mr. Kelly.

There is a bittersweet reconciliation at the end, and almost all the townspeople settle their differences.

The Faulkner stage holds another set with large moveable pieces that are manipulated smoothly during the scene changes so the action runs without interruption or dead-time. Congratulations.