Hatched long ago in the pre-Atkins days before carbs became the enemy, Stephen Schwartz’s “The Baker’s Wife” has some ephemeral charms but now seems pretty stale bread. Best known for the soaring ballad “Meadowlark,” the 1976 musical is one of those much-loved but rarely seen shows; it originally closed during out-of-town Broadway tryouts but built up a fervent band of admirers via its subsequently recorded cast album and a Trevor Nunn-directed London production 12 years later. The handsomely mounted Paper Mill revival is well cast and pleasingly sung but somewhat tedious, its central romantic triangle smothered in an overload of Provencale preciousness.
Based on the 1938 Marcel Pagnol film “La Femme du Boulanger” and adapted by Schwartz (in the wake of his success with “Godspell” and “Pippin”) and book writer Joseph Stein (“Fiddler on the Roof”), the show’s forgiving attitude toward adultery tags its source material as unmistakably French.
Setting is a 1935 village crammed with so many quaint and aggressively charming comic stereotypes, it makes “Chocolat” seem edgy. There’s the gregarious cafe owner and his wife, their affection for each other hidden behind snarky quips; the starchy spinster and the bookish professor; the local drunk; the fussy cleric; the mousy wife and her overbearing husband; the feuding neighbors; and the titled lothario, living in a decadent menage a quatre with his three “nieces.” It’s a miracle no one says “Ooh la la.”
Warmly sung by Gay Marshall (returning to the role of Denise she played in the Goodspeed production a few seasons back), the gentle, melodic opener “Chanson” sets the scene as an isolated hamlet where the only ripples on life’s lazy surface are created by “a birth, a death, a marriage.” But the villagers are all on edge, deprived of baguettes since the baker’s sudden death seven weeks earlier. The arrival in town of his replacement, Aimable (Lenny Wolpe), is greeted as the second coming, not least because of the exceptional quality of the newcomer’s loaves.
The baker also provides fodder for village gossip, being considerably older than his comely wife Genevieve (Alice Ripley), whom he adores unquestioningly. Revealed in her melancholy song “Gifts of Love,” Genevieve has married Aimable on the rebound from a love affair with a married man for whom she still carries a torch and who eventually chose his wife over her.
Despite her efforts to be true to Aimable, Genevieve succumbs to the romantic attentions of hunky young villager Dominique (Max Von Essen), who whisks her away one night, leaving the baker bereft and unable to bake. Suddenly denied their daily bread again, the villagers set out to track down the runaway wife and bring her back. (The separate departure and return of Genevieve’s beloved cat represents an unfortunately leaden allegory for the errant wife. Straying pussy? Please.)
Much as Genevieve and Dominique are drawn as people prey to all-too-human weaknesses, and the baker’s wife, in particular, is redeemed by chastening realizations that occur during her flight, these are hard characters to love. That makes Aimable the show’s most empathetic figure, played with open-hearted sweetness and endearingly frayed edges by Volpe, another Goodspeed alum. But the drama of this aptly named man, soberly aware he’s far from the romantic ideal of his gorgeous young wife, is never made sufficiently central. Instead, the show diffuses its focus on the tiresome villagers, a weakness aggravated by rampant overplaying in the ensemble.
The able-voiced leads make consistently pleasant work of Schwartz’s songs, notably Volpe’s touching acceptance of his abandonment in “If I Have to Live Alone.” Von Essen is a robust pop balladeer who certainly looks the part of irresistibly handsome Dominique, even if his rendition of “Proud Lady” seems too bombastic and calculating to depict a man utterly driven by a love he’s unable to curb.
Ripley’s voice has tremendous range and power, and her delivery of the vocally demanding “Meadowlark,” in which Genevieve ponders escape or death, is technically assured. But her songs remain at an emotional distance, kept there by the character but also by a slightly mannered performance. Her French accent interferes with any nuance in her songs, and in both “Meadowlark” and Genevieve’s reawakening to reality, “Where Is the Warmth?,” there’s a tendency to pump up the vibrato in ways that artificially echo the role’s originator, Patti LuPone.
Designer Anna Louizos has constructed a pretty, rustic village bathed by lighting man Jeff Croiter in the soft yellows and mauves of perpetual dawn or dusk. Catherine Zuber’s attractive period costumes also contribute to make this a visually polished production. But director Gordon Greenberg seems too reverential to the ambling material, which cries out for extensive cuts, plodding through an excess of hokey humor and doughy peripheral business while too erratically firing up the oven to warm the twee show’s muffled heart.