Posts Tagged ‘La Femme du Boulanger’

This show, based on the Marcel Pagnol & Jean Giono film La Femme du Boulanger, has had a troubled history. The Guys & Dolls boys Frank Loesser & Abe Burrows were originally planning to turn it into a musical in the 50’s, but it never came off. Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked) & Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof) toured their show around the US in 1976 (with at various times Topol and Patti Lupone in the cast) but it never made it to Broadway. Trevor never-less-than-three-hours Nunn blamed his 1989 West End flop on its length! This is its second London fringe outing in five years and it proves that it’s found its place as a funny, charming chamber musical and for me a better show that either Godspell or Wicked.

A French village without a bakery is unthinkable. They used to be a French law (still is?) protecting the right of every village to a baker. Our nameless one in Provence has been grieving since it lost theirs, but news of the arrival of a new baker lifts their spirits and Aimable and his much younger wife Genevieve are soon in post and bread back on the menu. In our typical village, the priest and the teacher are feuding over an oak tree and the butcher and cafe owner have been feuding so long they no longer know what they’re feuding about and the bickering with, and ill-treatment of, their long-suffering wives is relentless. The Marquis lives with his three ‘nieces’ and his handsome handyman Dominique who falls for Genevieve. When they run away, the baker falls to pieces and the village is without bread once more. In desperation, they send out search parties.

I loved seeing the panic on faces in the audience when it all starts in French, but it soon reverts in English as the cafe owner’s wife Denise begins to narrate the tale. The score is lovely, Schwartz’s lyrics very witty and the atmosphere nostalgique (that’s wistful in French, apparently). It’s not easy to pull off without turning it into a post-war ‘Allo ‘Allo (for younger readers, a dreadful British TV sitcom – which was shown on French TV, dubbed!) but here they have, last night struggling with sweltering conditions on ‘the hottest July day ever!’. The comedy is particularly strong and there are some lovely touches, including appearances by Pom Pom, the baker’s wife’s cat, the smell of bread wafting through the space with the first bake and the butcher forever talking with his mouth full. The ensemble numbers are rousing.

Director Marc Kelly also seems to be responsible for movement and design and all three effectively create an appropriate setting and ambiance for a 1930’s French village. It’s a very good ensemble and it would be invidious to single anyone out.  Kieran Stallard gamely plays the whole score on electric piano.

It’s an impressive show from new kids on the block MKEC Productions and good to see something like this at the Drayton Arms. Now the temperature is dropping, go catch one of the last four performances; who knows when we’ll see it again.

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I’ve waited over 21 years for a revival of this show, which was a critical success but a commercial flop in the West End in 1989, but Michael Strassen’s production at the Union Theatre was worth the wait. This bumper year of small-scale musical revivals and of the Union Theatre’s pre-eminence continues.

Stephen (Godspell) Schwartz’s show is based on the Marcel Pagnol / Jean Giono film La Femme du Boulanger and it’s the best score he wrote. Here it’s beautifully sung, unamplified, with just piano and cello (and occasional acoustic guitar) under MD Chris Mundy. It so suits the story – delightful, funny, charming & wistful.

A French village is incomplete without its baker (I think there is still a law in France that actually prevents this) and this village has been without one for seven weeks, so withdrawal symptoms are rampant and the inhabitants seriously over-excited when the new baker arrives with his beautiful new young wife. It doesn’t take long before a dashing young man whisks her away and the baker is distraught and unable to  bake. Of course, it all ends happily ever after. It is indeed a slight tale, but frankly it doesn’t really matter.

Michael Matus brilliantly captures the lovestruck naivety of the baker (appropriately named Aimable) and Lisa Stokke the struggle between loyalty and temptation. Matthew Goodgame is as dashing as you’d wish for a lover and there is a terrific partnership from Ian Mowat and Ricky Butt as the bickering cafe owner and his wife and a fine Marquis / Mayor (with three ‘nieces’ in tow!) from Mark Turnbull. There isn’t a weak link in the ensemble; a superb supporting cast of twelve.

Though I didn’t really like the painted backdrop, which seemed to me more Munch’s The Scream than the presumably intended Chagall, there is an authentic French village feel created by a handful of props and good costumes but more than anything else by good, somewhat tongue-in-cheek acting. I loved the opening in French, before the cafe owner’s wife as narrator is reminded where she is – it lasted just long enough for panic to set in with some audience members! The staging is excellent – with particularly fluid ensemble movement.

Yet another fine production at the Union. Next stop Texas for The Best Little Whorehouse!

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