It was back in 1949 that the Pillsbury Company held its first annual Pillsbury Bake-Off competition, awarding $50,000 for the contest’s best recipe, which in its first year was No-Knead Water-Rising Twists.
Year after year, the winner was a woman, with very few men even entering over the decades. But in 1996, Pillsbury made a monumental change and offered a $1 million cash prize and suddenly men were everywhere, and the first man ever, Kurt Wait, won for his Macadamia Fudge Torte.
That scenario is the basis for Cake Off, a new musical by Sheri Wilner (Kingdom City), Julia Jordan (Murder Ballad), and Adam Gwon (Signature’s The Boy Detective Fails), which is making its world premiere at Signature ARK Theatre starting Sept. 29.
“It’s the battle of the sexes at its best,” says Sherri L. Edelen, who plays Rita Gaw, a three-time contestant who is not happy that men have started to dominate the competition. “The rules of the Bake Off are that you can only enter three times, so this is her last go at it. A young man with a child enters for the first time, and we go at it.”
Wilner first explored this satirical idea in a short one-act she wrote in 2002 called Bake Off, and it was workshopped in July as a full-production, with its sites set on Signature and director Joe Calarco.
“Joe brought me in on it and I thought it was wonderful,” Edelen says. “We did a 29-hour workshop with the writers and read through it, they wrote some new music. We all talked about it and they were completely on board with letting the actors participate in the discussion. I really like that process because sometimes writers aren’t open to ideas.”
Also in the cast are Todd Buonopane (as Rita’s nemesis Paul), Jamie Smithson and Ian Berlin.
With some fine-touches and additions to the original book, Cake Off now tells the story of hardy contestants Paul and Rita, who don their aprons, strap on their oven mitts and square off. Armed with whisks, bowls, knives and eggs, the two engage in an increasingly ludicrous all-out brawl—and of course, only one can remain standing when the timer dings.
“It’s a zany comedy but also very touching. It’s pretty funny and everyone needs to laugh right now,” she says. “The Pillsbury Bakeoff rested on the shoulders for women for years and men sprinkled in little by little. The minute that they made the contest $1 million, suddenly all these men entered the contest and a man won. That gets under the skin of Rita.”
Edelen believes Signature is the perfect theater for the show as it offers an intimate space that lets the contest revolve around the audience.
“You’re going to be in the action. We’re going to be creaming butter and sugar right on the stage, and there’s probably going to even be a food fight,” she says. “It’s a space that is ideal for the show and I think audiences are going to really enjoy it.”
Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival
September 29 – November 22, 2015
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When Edelen was first contacted about the part, she read the one-act in about 10 minutes and instantly saw the show’s potential and wanted to be a part of it. “When I’m creating a role, I look for a good mix of drama and comedy, with a vulnerability in the character,” she says. “I think I have good comic timing and figure it out what it’s about as far as drama. This was a role that I was excited to play.”
Of course, not every part is right for her, and she reveals she recently turned down a juicy part because it wasn’t really in her wheelhouse.
“I can’t bring something to a role if I don’t know anything about it or have a passion for it,” she says. “Certainly, in the beginning of my career, it was all about creating characters and getting the rush of telling the story in the best way. I have a natural attraction and affinity towards it. You can learn about anything, but if I don’t have a passion for it, I’m not going to be the girl for you.”
That doesn’t mean that Edelen is off baking cookies and brownies every weekend, but she understands the mindset of Rita as someone who wants something so bad and is fearful that it can be taken away.