Among theater geeks, "The Baker's Wife" is a sort of merit badge. Top marks to the person who can sing "Meadowlark," the show's ravishing mini-musical of a ballad, from memory -- and bonus points if he or she can also recite the poisoned history of the 1976 developmental tour that ground to a halt just shy of a Broadway opening.
Even super-nerds are unlikely to have ever seen the show, however. Though the lively Stephen Schwartz score has been enjoyed for years via cast album, the musical is rarely staged.
So there's a shiver of excitement running through the fall theater season as Actors Co-op revives it with Richard Israel, a local master of musicals, as director.
Happily, the version available for license nowadays is not the failed original but the 2005 culmination of latter-year revamps.
Based on a Marcel Pagnol film, "The Baker's Wife," scripted by Joseph Stein, is a folk tale set in a gossipy village, much like Stein's "Fiddler on the Roof."
The hamlet in this case is in 1930s Provence, where the new baker arrives with a wife so much younger than himself that the townsfolk initially mistake her for his daughter. This disparity will lead to problems, of course, as dramatists from the ancients onward have taken pains to warn us.
Backed here by a five-member band, Schwartz's songs sound a tad French but mostly resemble his other early pop-flavored writing for "Pippin" and "Godspell." "Meadowlark" is perhaps the best song he's ever written, part fairy tale, part aria -- a riveting encapsulation of the story's themes. Patti LuPone, the '76 tour's replacement star, still makes it a centerpiece of her concerts.
Chelle Denton as the baker's wife sings it here with growing dread as she realizes she's succumbing to the ideas that the village's young hunk has planted in her mind. Greg Baldwin as the baker, his amiable nature crushed, gets his own power ballad, "If I Have to Live Alone."
If director Israel isn't able to work his usual magic, it's at least partly because too many of his performers lack emotional depth or vocal dynamism. But he nimbly balances somberness with humor and burnishes the production to a gentle glow.
In the cozy sofa painting of a French village that scenic designer Rich Rose has provided, the baker's travails unfold amid small-town squabbles that get set aside when a larger disruption occurs: All the ardor has drained from the baker's art -- a catastrophe. This is a town that loves its gluten, as witnessed in the delightful "Bread," in which the smell and taste of that foodstuff sends the villagers into angular "A Chorus Line"-like lines and Busby Berkeley circles (kudos, choreographer Julie Hall).
That leaves everyone hoping for the return of love, the yeast so essential to life.
"The Baker's Wife," Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; also 2:30 p.m. Sept. 26 and Oct. 24. Ends Oct. 25. $34. (323) 462-8460 or www.actorsco-op.org. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.