By Jordan Wright (Photo/Margot Schulman)
As part of this fall’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival, director Joe Calarco commissioned American playwright Sheri Wilner and lyricists Julia Jordan and Adam Gwon to write “Cake Off,” an original musical. What they came up with is a comedy so off the wall and sidesplitting that I’m still trying to catch my breath.
The story derives from a nationally known baking competition, which in 1996 was won by a man for the first time, who took home the $1 million prize. Sponsored by the ever so slightly altered company name of Millsbury, the plot centers around two competitors, Paul Hubbard (Todd Buonopane) and Rita Gaw (Sherri Edelen), and the emcee from hell, Jack DeVault (Jamie Smithson, who does triple duty as former contestants Lenora Nesbit and Nancy DeMarco).
Rita is a divorcee and three-time finalist whose talent derives from an unrequited career in chemistry. A science nerd in the art of baking, she lives vicariously through her doctor-to-be daughter.
Newcomer Paul has chosen his 12-year-old son Wyatt’s (Ian Berlin) favorite cake recipe, chocolate Junior Mints cake, but becomes tormented with beginner’s angst.
“I’ve never been a winner, I’m in the Average Hall of Fame,” he tells Rita, hoping to convince her he’s a better man than the personal trainer his wife has run off with. Rita just wants to prove to her five kids and deserter husband that she’s more than just a housewife and mother. They bond after Rita ignores contest rules to bail out his baking faux pas, and together they rhapsodize about their perfect ingredients in the number “Round One.”
Things heat up — and not just the ovens — when Jack snubs Rita to shower Paul with on-air commentary, as the event becomes a battle of the sexes. “This is a TV show,” Jack warns Rita. “They can’t taste the cake!”
In “Be a Little Sweeter,” veteran baker Lenore cautions Rita that the judges are looking for a telegenic personality, something her legendary roasted apple cake can’t overcome. That and the fact that she’s a woman.
Designer Jason Sherwood sets the stage with back-to-back stoves to mimic the layout of the famed bake-off, where Rita and Paul measure and mix their delicious creations in a frantic rush to beat the clock.
Jordan and Gwon’s lyrics are catchy, quirky and even tender when needed. But the real winners are Edelen, whose voice and comedic timing are reminiscent of Lucille Ball, Buonopane, who bookends her seamlessly, and Smithson, whose extensive array of facial expressions is mind-altering.
Mix in a few cups of Erma Bombeck’s feminist domesticity with Fannie Flagg’s heartland hilarity, add some candy sprinkles, chocolate frosting and 14 catchy tunes, and dare I say it, you’ve got a gold medal winner.
This show is highly recommended if you want to laugh your buns off.