Full disclosure. Back in the day as a features reporter, I covered not one, but two Pillsbury Bake-Offs—including the one in San Diego where teenagers kidnapped the life-size Pillsbury Doughboy statue from the hotel lobby and sent the local TV station ransom notes that contained photos of the Doughboy tied up and wearing a blindfold.
Nothing like that happens in Cake Off, the fluffy world premiere musical at Signature that sends-up the all-American baking competition. It does, however, cheerfully capture the wackiness, angst, backroom politics and sugar high of the actual Pillsbury Bake-Off, only with much better singing than what I encountered, which was Gary Collins and former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley warbling pop tunes.
In Cake Off, the powerhouse trio of Sherri L. Edelen, Todd Buonopane (you wonder if he were cast for his name, which means “good bread” in Italian) and Jamie Smithson handle the singing and acting chores, lending originality and heft to a pleasant, but largely unremarkable score, played with relish by pianist Andrea Grody.
Edelen plays Millberry Cake Off veteran Rita Gaw, a divorcee from Minnesota who set aside her scientist aspirations to put her husband through law school and lovingly raise five children. Rita approaches baking with the precision of a chemist, calculating the reactions caused by acids, eggs, sugar and baking soda. Baking is a way to satisfy her scientific calling, to prove to herself and the world that in the kitchen she actually is a genius.
On the other hand, we have Paul Hubbard (Buonopane), a hot mess from Florida who is starry-eyed to be part of the first year men are allowed to compete in the Cake Off. In contrast to Rita’s methodical mixing, Paul bangs around the kitchen like an escaped deer, dumping boxes of Junior Mints into batter while trying to keep tabs on his son Wyatt (Ian Berlin), a typically anguished adolescent.
As Rita and Paul move through the competition—and are pitted against each other in the finals as the revolving set kicks into high gear—they are plagued by Jack DeVault (Smithson), the smarmy host who tries to drum up reality show-style drama. The musical takes place in 1996, when cable TV and food shows were in the fledgling stages and mostly presided by male personalities like Emeril.
Gender roles are satirized and skewed; Rita is the formidable, logical one and Paul as flustered and self-doubting as a Fifties teenage girl. Rita’s single-minded grit gets her into hot water, and Cake Off legend Nancy (Smithson)—whose 1960s, space-age concoction featured Tang—admonishes her in the bouncy song “Be A Little Sweeter” to be more Betty Crocker and less Betty Friedan.
Rita is also visited by Lenora (Smithson again), another Cake Off pro, a Southern belle laced with sugar-coated sarcasm, who faces the sexist slant of this year’s competition head-on with the mischievous ditty “Fun,” where she advises Rita to let the men have their fun before the women cream them.
Paul, a single parent whose wife left him for her personal trainer, has definitely tapped into his creampuff side. He, like Rita, wants to win not for the love of cakery, but to prove something—that he’s someone good enough for his son to love and to show his wife he’s not a loser, which he reveals in the still, aching song “Less Like Me.”
Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival
September 29 – November 22
4200 Campbell Avenue
Arlington, VA 22206
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $40 – $72
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Cake Off’s score burbles along, with lows and highs, most notably in the showstopper “You Can’t Have This,” a magnificent meltdown where Rita finally cracks and rails against male privilege with such lyrics as “There’s a man fluffing egg whites like he owns the f-ing place!” and a barb about the imperial prostate gland that pretty much brought the house down.
Edelen plays Rita with strength and a slightly wounded and aggrieved air. She is in her element and in the range that suits her big voice. Buonopane deftly conveys the sweet earnestness of Paul and makes a decent schlub leading man material. Smithson brings inventiveness and deranged energy to the roles of the desperate host, snippy Lenora and retro Nancy.
Cake Off won’t win any prizes for sophistication and nuance, but it nails the madness of a baking competition and male favoritism and because of that, it’s a guiltless treat.
Cake Off, based on the original play by Sheri Wilner. Book by Sheri Wilner and Julia Jordan. Lyrics by Julia Jordon and Adam Gwon. Music by Adam Gwon. Directed by Joe Calarco. Featuring Ian Berlin, Todd Buonopane, Sherri L. Edelen and Jamie Smithson. Set design: Jason Sherwood. Costume design: Frank Labovitz. Lighting design: R. Lee Kennedy. Sound design: Lane Elms. Production stage manager: Julie Meyer. Produced by Signature Theatre. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.