Apple Tree Theatre


Candlelight Dinner Playhouse

If one consistent element runs through the work of musical-comedy librettist Joseph Stein, it’s an interest in common people living in close-knit communities. His scripts for such musicals as Plain and Fancy, Take Me Along, Zorba, and Fiddler on the Roof focus on the experience of small-town life, offering sentiment and social criticism in equal parts. The plots of these shows are generally motored by an intrusive element that endangers the homogeneity and security of these environments: an Amish settlement is rocked by the return of a prodigal son in Plain and Fancy; a quaint New England town is disrupted by a drunk in the Eugene O’Neill-inspired Take Me Along; murder rends the social fabric of a Greek village in Zorba.

The Baker’s Wife, a mid-1970s effort by Stein (based on a 1938 Marcel Pagnol film) with a pretty but unmemorable collection of songs by Stephen Schwartz, also depicts a tightly bonded group of people whose world is invaded. Here though, it’s the outsiders who are threatened by the world they invade. Aimable, a shy, sweet-natured middle-aged baker, is hired by a small village in Provence to take over for the recently deceased bread maker. He brings with him his pretty young wife, Genevieve. The recently wed couple immediately becomes the focus of gossip, and the villagers wonder how long the marriage can last given the spouses’ age difference. The love-struck, overly solicitous Aimable brushes away such speculation, using an outward air of contentment to hide his terror that Genevieve will leave him; when a handsome young villager serenades Genevieve, Aimable turns a blind eye to this obvious threat. But Genevieve–having already confessed in a musical soliloquy that she married Aimable for security, not love–runs away with her young suitor. Her distraught husband takes to drink, and suddenly the villagers find themselves with no bread on their tables. So the inhabitants of this Provencal Peyton Place must put aside their basic inclination toward malicious idle gossip and try to help the poor man by finding his errant wife.

How much of the script currently being produced at the Apple Tree Theatre is Stein’s is unclear. The Baker’s Wife was a flop in its original pre-Broadway tryouts and never even made it into New York. A revised version of the piece was recently mounted in London under the guidance of director Trevor Nunn, and that is the version being offered here under Gary Griffin’s direction–minus a play-writing credit for Stein. The identification of specific character types that are to be found in any village is familiar from Stein’s earlier work, but in this fatally flawed script, those types are simpleminded and cliched, lacking the humanity and specificity that distinguished the characterizations of Stein’s other efforts. The priggish old maid and the decadent aristocrat, the acerbic atheist and his antagonist the pious priest, the coarse lug and the sly seducer, the grouchy innkeeper and his waspish wife–these are stereotypes, not archetypes. Their superficiality is exacerbated by the clumsy way they are put to use–whenever the plot takes a new (though never surprising) twist, they all rush onto the sidewalk-cafe set (beautifully designed by Tim Oien and lighted in pretty storybook pastels by Todd Hensley–too lovely a town for such a loutish lot) to gossip as loudly as they can.

Lacking in honest thought or feeling, The Baker’s Wife might have potential in the hands of a director who knew how to have fun with its problems. But Griffin simply follows the script cliche for cliche, directing his less-than-top-notch cast to act as earnest as possible. But sincerity doesn’t work with such emotionally specious material. Even a delicately modulated performance such as the one Lee Strawn gives as Aimable fails when it’s so badly hampered by the writing. And shrilly amateurish ones, such as those given by Paul Joseph Stagaman as the lover (how could Genevieve fall for such an out-of-tune serenader?) and Tina Thuerwachter in the admittedly embarrassing role of the old maid, are painful to watch. The only performers who make this thing worth sitting through are the two female leads, who have learned from experience how to play against a script like this in order to rise above it. Hollis Resnik, a really dazzling singing actress, powerfully tests her limits when she turns Genevieve’s two soap-operatic confessional songs into vivid, urgently told stories. The key to Resnik’s power, aside from her knockout set of pipes, is her capacity for seeing exactly what she’s singing about–in this case, the memory of an old passion that she tries to rekindle with a new affair. As the worldly-wise innkeeper’s wife who acts as the story’s commentator (a sort of female version of El Gallo in the far superior The Fantasticks), Kathy Taylor is sublime. As with Resnik, it’s not just her fine voice but her ability to create her own very real story that makes the difference when the story she’s been given is so hollow.

Yet simple sincerity can be a perfect tool for a great script, such as Stein’s Fiddler on the Roof. Based on stories by Russian Jewish humorist Shalom Aleichem, this musical comedy was semirevolutionary when it made its debut in 1964. It was long, dramatic, and unglitzy. Its almost epic force derived from the plain but deep emotions of its characters, not from spectacular production or fast-moving events. And as a tightly integrated work of speech, song, and dance, it reaffirmed the equal importance of director, songwriter, and librettist in the creation of a musical play.

One big difference between Fiddler on the Roof and The Baker’s Wife is the remarkably high quality of the former’s songs, by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (a product of Northwestern University’s Waa-Mu shows). Unlike the busy, labored attempts at wit in Schwartz’s songs for The Baker’s Wife, Fiddler on the Roof’s score is filled with clearly chosen, eloquently expressed images that feel good to sing (which is why an audience remembers them). “Sunrise, sunset, swiftly flow the days”; “Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match”; “To life, to life, l’chaim”; “Far from the home I love”; “Anatevka, Anatevka, overworked, underfed Anatevka”–these are perfect lyric phrases, and there are plenty more where they came from. But Fiddler on the Roof’s longevity and constant freshness are due just as much to the integrity and solidness of Stein’s characterizations of the proud yet humble Jewish patriarch Tevye, his loving but increasingly independent daughters, the young men who love them–a nervous tailor, a hot-blooded radical, a coolly aloof Christian Russian–the nosy matchmaker who stifles her loneliness by butting into everyone else’s life, and the others who make this play a rich social tapestry.

William Pullinsi’s staging of the work at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse, exceptionally simple and straightforward after his imaginative, playfully gimmicky Into the Woods, emphasizes the plainness and intimacy of the characters’ personalities and life-styles. Pullinsi’s Tevye, Lee Pelty, is a strong and likable central character, with his deep, authoritative voice and fussy, nervous hands that suggest his very insecure position as head of the house. But this isn’t a star showcase. The best moments are the group scenes: the powerful “To Life,” in which a group of dancing Russians (ably led by Pelty’s son Adam Pelty) signal to the Jews their simultaneous comradeship and contempt; the hilarious dream sequence Tevye makes up to scare his superstitious wife; the exquisite “Sabbath Prayer,” revealing the deep need for spiritual security that underlies the rigid dogma of the characters’ Judaism; and the climactic farewell, “Anatevka,” in which the tight community disintegrates with an ache of memory and a tingle of excitement as its members go their separate ways.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.