Song and dance almost revive weak 'Wife'

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By Doug Deuchler

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Circle Theatre has long been known for mounting dazzling productions of famous flops. The intrepid company loves to resurrect failed musicals that, for various reasons, missed their mark. Often we're so blown away by these ambitious revivals it's puzzling why the original productions were poorly received and unsuccessful. With The Baker's Wife, however, it's no mystery. This show never fully finds its focus.

Don't get me wrong. The musical has lots going for it. Though seldom revived, it's long enjoyed a dedicated cult following. Based on a 1938 French film, it's beguiling and bittersweet.

Circle's superb ensemble cast of 18, directed by Kevin Bellie, who also is the choreographer, is energetic and exuberant.

The music and lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz (who wrote Wicked and Godspell) and the book is by Joseph Stein (who did Fiddler On the Roof). But this show floundered on its way to Broadway in the mid-1970s. Revived in 1989 in London, it closed after 56 performances. (The Baker's Wife actually never did get produced on Broadway.)

If you've heard of this legendary musical flop and wondered why it's so seldom revived, here's your chance to formulate your own opinion.

A remote, rural French village has been without fresh bread for seven long weeks after their previous baker died suddenly.

The villagers' lives are not very interesting. Everyone knows each other far too well. Feuds have simmered for generations.

There's a dreary woman (played by Melody Latham) who wanders around reading dusty old books. Several wives are treated badly by their husbands. There's a young man with bouffant hair (Steve Griest) who seems to be suffering from Tourette's Syndrome, ever blurting out rude, inappropriate comments. The local teacher (Brian Elliot) and the priest (Nicholas Reinhart) argue daily.

Everyone's lives seem to revolve around old grudges and daily gossip at the open air cafe.

Noah Sullivan is the brusque cafe proprietor. Anita Hoffman is delightful as his stoic, funny wife Denise. She sets the mood with her opening song, partially in French. (Ever the mental matchmaker, I kept hoping the baker might eventually end up with her.)

Clamoring for fresh bread, the town advertises the position of village baker and entices simple, good-natured Aimable Castagnet (Chuck Sisson) and his lovely, much younger wife Genevieve (Khaki Pixley) to their community.

Sisson has plenty of charm and pathos, as well as solid voice technique, as the big-hearted baker who's twice his wife's age and knows full well Genevieve really doesn't love him. Everyone thinks the young beauty is his daughter.

Pixley, in the title role, is quite charming and has a beautiful voice. Yet, as written, it's hard to warm up to this character or feel much sympathy for her.

One of the highlights is a song sung the morning after the baker and his wife arrive and the villagers awake to the aroma of fresh bread baking.

Kirk Swenk is amusingly amoral as the Marquis who lives with three voluptuous young ladies he refers to as his "nieces." This roguish Marquis has a handsome hunk of a chauffeur named Dominique (David Sajewich) who persistently flirts with the attractive baker's wife.

The best known song in the show, "Meadowlark," is a show-stopper in which Genevieve wrestles with temptation. It's about a bird who regrets staying with an old king instead of flying off with the sun god.

When the sexy wife of the baker runs off with the chauffeur, the villagers sing that he's better off wifeless. I'll bet if you stopped the show and took a poll, every member of the audience would agree with them.

We never know how to view the hunky heel who runs off with the baker's wife. Is he just a self-centered stud pursuing an illicit liaison or is he a worthy Romeo who might make her happy?

The despondent, cuckolded baker gets so drunk he burns all his loaves. He loses his baking mojo and stops making bread. So once again the village is thrown into disarray without their fresh loaves every morning. Will the baker's wife return? Will the villagers never enjoy fresh bread again? Will the first act never end?

The book is fragmented and blurry. The score is decent. There are beguiling, pleasant songs but they're hardly catchy.

There's also a horribly overdone metaphor involving Genevieve's wandering cat Pom-Pom, who shamelessly shows up after an extensive, unexplained absence.

There is excellent accompaniment: cello, keyboards, and reeds. The quartet of musicians (Gary Powell, David Keller, Aaron Benham and David Orlicz) are hidden behind the "butcher shop."

Bob Knuth's two-level set, the town square of the French village, is smartly designed. There's a cluster of bistro tables and chairs in front of the cafe.

Amy Hilber designed the costumes. Gary Powell is the musical director and Adele Powers the stage manager.

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