Tag Archives: Joseph Stein

“The Baker’s Wife” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Merci beaucoup to David Babani’s venue and director Gordon Greenberg for staging this musical theatre curio from the legendary Stephen Schwartz.

The Baker’s Wife is a sweet show with good songs and a great sense of humour. Schwartz and the book’s writer Joseph Stein are Francophiles both. There’s a clear affection for the source material – La Femme du boulanger by Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giono – that adds a warmth. And it is hard to imagine a better production for what is a deceptively complicated work.

The appeal is clear and the show unusual for Schwartz in being, very self-consciously, a chamber piece. There is an interesting tension between proclamations about small sensual moments said to encompass all our lives. And they really do mean everyone. The intimate Menier, with a superb set from Paul Farnsworth, reflects this ambition. The location might be a small village, upset by a new baker and his much younger wife arriving, but we see a lot of the locale and the cast numbers 19. It’s to Greenberg’s credit that not too many of the characters get lost. 

There are serious intentions. Genevieve, the wife in question, runs off with a younger man, leaving her devoted spouse, Aimable, devastated… and after such lovely songs, too. There are great numbers for both Lucie Jones and Clive Rowe, who take the roles, but their rather pat dilemma is not helped by the rogue she runs off with being a weak character (Joaquin Pedro Valdes, who sings wonderfully, is distinctly short changed). There’s a lot of sentiment, arguably an excess of slow numbers, and surely too many sincere looks with clasping hands between the cast. The lyrics are great, though perhaps a touch repetitious. 

Lighter moments are better – and these aren’t just comedic. There’s a powerful thread of nostalgia and melancholy to the piece, exemplified by a fine performance from café owner Denise, played by the always excellent Josefina Gabrielle, that is surprisingly airy. And the show is funny. The triumvirate of teacher, curate and mayor make great roles for Mark Extance, Matthew Seadon-Young and Michael Matus, who are all superb. There’s fun, too, for Norman Pace and Liam Tamne, playing old rivals who become friends. And a highlight is a song called ‘Bread’, which is rather brilliant.

It’s a lot, though, and, despite admirable efforts from Rowe in particular, The Baker’s Wife doesn’t quite come together. For a start, the story has too easy a solution. While an effort is made with the women in the show, including the mayor’s three “nieces” (one of whom he, ahem, offers to the baker to cheer him up) their group number, entitled ‘Romance’, feels forced and none of the female characters as vivid. Since the aim is to show us a whole community, that’s a big fault. For all the strong songs – very well performed – there isn’t enough to take away. Sketchy rather than slim, there are laughs and plenty of heart-felt moments, but the pleasure is from a fine production of a show seldom seen. 

Until 14 September 2024


Photos by Tristram Kenton

“Fiddler on the Roof” at the Playhouse Theatre

It’s great to see the Menier Chocolate Factory back in the West End. Tickets for this revival of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s musical sold out quicker than a Brick Lane beigel for its home run near London Bridge, so a bigger venue means a welcome chance to see this excellent show. One word of warning, though – behave as if you were a rich man and treat yourself to a good seat.

Under Paul Bogaev’s musical direction Bock’s music sounds great, Sheldon’s lyrics are always a treat and director Trevor Nunn has a careful appreciation of Joseph Stein’s book: the structure is kept tight, the characters vivid and the jokes are great. Famously recounting the story of Jewish life in a Russian village just before the revolution, the lead role of Tevye has been career defining before and, taking the part here, Andy Nyman does not disappoint. The poverty-stricken patriarch struggles with his wife (a strong performance from Judy Kuhn) and the marriages of his three eldest daughters. Taking these roles Molly Osborne, Nicola Brown and Harriet Bunton do a fabulous job of injecting youth and energy into the show, and their opening number is a real delight. Each of the troubled romances convinces, mixing sweetness and poignancy with strong songs.

It really is worth splashing out on a posh seat, though. While Robert Jones’s set design – evoking Chagall but with a restrained colour palette appropriate to the piece’s surprisingly somber tone – deserves praise, projecting the stage into stalls causes problems. A lot of seats have been sacrificed (hence the ticket price?) but little account taken of the view from the balcony. Nunn should know better than this. Thankfully Matt Cole’s choreography, based on Jerome Robbins’ original work, is still strong enough to thrill; not just the acrobatics but the way dance is used to illustrate the close community and the struggles with modernity that it faces.

Fiddler on the Roof really fascinates. It’s funny, a simple story, well told, that feels solidly old fashioned. But, while focused on tradition, the theme of the show is actually change. New and old are both present in the 1964 piece itself. Much of the first half seems very Broadway – the format is conservative and almost predictable. But, as a concern for history takes over, the show become bravely dark. As the approaching Cossacks move from a threat to a reality, Tevye shows the limits of his own tolerance (Nyman is an excellent here). There’s a combination of pain, incomprehension and dignity in the characters and the story that the production embraces, moving us from high-class entertainment to a questioning and emotionally turbulent finale.

Until 2 November 2019


Photo by Johan Persson