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BWW Review: Small Musical Scores Big at Signature with CAKE OFF

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CAKE OFF, now making its world premiere at Signature Theatre as its entry into the Women's Voices Theater Festival, may not be a documentary about the yearly Pillsbury Bake Off - which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1996 - but that's not what its creators intended. In fact, as a bit of a prologue to the show, an actor (Jamie Smithson) comes onstage to explain this tidbit. What we do have, however, is the story of the first time that the fictional Millberry Cake Off allowed men to enter the yearly competition. The prize money offered for the 1996 competition has increased considerably from years past (one million dollars, in fact), and the competition to be named the best cake baker in the country is more fierce than ever. Things get out of hand quickly, and wacky hijinks certainly ensue and, in fact, escalate as the final round approaches. Much of what transpires onstage on Jason Sherwood's realistic set is quite hilarious, but at the core of this world premiere musical we also have a sweet and charming story that's not so much about man vs. woman in the standard and expected way. It's more than that. And that's a good thing.

Along with co-book writer Sheri Wilner, who wrote the play on which CAKE OFF is based, the creative team also boasts two of the more exciting New York City-based writers for new musical theatre today - Julia Jordan and Adam Gwon. Julia Jordan - probably best known to Washingtonians for MURDER BALLAD, which played Studio Theatre over the summer following a premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club - offers up her writing skills as co-book writer and lyricist. Adam Gwon - probably best known for ORDINARY DAYS, which had a production last year at Round House Theatre and premiered at Roundabout Theatre Company, but also Signature's far too underappreciated premiere of THE BOY DETECTIVE FAILS - wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics with Ms. Jordan. The end result is a musical that is fresh and new, yet mainstream enough to attract a wide audience of not just theatre nerds, but others who might just want to see a cute story about a baking competition, and of course, those concerned about gender issues (attention is called to them frequently throughout the course of the musical, but thankfully it's very rarely heavy-handed or forced).

When we first meet Rita Gaw from Minnesota (Signature regular Sherri L. Edelen), she's focused, determined, and prepared. It's her third and final time of entering the competition and she wants to be sure everything is just perfect. Her kids are grown, her husband is gone, and this is essentially all she has in her life. She sacrificed everything for her kids and husband, but all are away pursuing their own paths. She's your average housewife (an idea reinforced by Frank Labovitz, who has Ms. Edelen dressed in "mom jeans," white sneakers, and the like) who struggled with whether you can really have it all.

Paul Hubbard from Florida (Broadway's Todd Buonopane who gives an earnest performance) - assigned to the baking station closest to Rita - couldn't be more different. Of course's he's male and southern, but he's also chatty and warm, and takes a less than scientific approach to baking in comparison to the more studied Rita (she is adamant baking is essentially chemistry). Paul, now divorced like Rita, simply likes to bake with his young son Wyatt and is eager for Wyatt to witness him making his favorite chocolate and Junior Mint cake on national television. Host Jack DeVault (Jamie Smithson, who also humorously plays a past and former contestant) is eager to make him the story. It is television, after all and he is new, different, and affable.

Rita doesn't initially see Paul as a threat, but of course, Rita and Paul find themselves going head-to-head in all three phases of the competition, including the final round. Throughout the process, challenges arise. Paul gets distracted by a situation involving his son, and Rita struggles with how to handle the competition (should she be nice and demure, as a lady should be?), among other things. When it becomes clear the competition is not simply a quest to find the best baker (there's a political angle, obviously, and gender plays a role), the unlikely duo has a choice to make - or it could be made for them. In the end, one of the messages is such that things we think matter greatly may not be important at all (Sweetie Boy, played by Ian Berlin, underscores this point in the last few moments of the show).

Wilner and Jordan deliver a tight book that never lags, and does not get bogged down too much about proper messaging. They wisely let the story convey the messages rather than the other way around. The lyrics propel the story forward and provide new insights into the characters' thinking. Likewise, Adam Gwon's music is diverse yet quintessential contemporary musical theatre. Lovely heartfelt ballads for Rita like "Transform" are accompanied by the raucous duet "You Can't Have This (Round Three)," both of which are some of the strongest numbers in the show. Those who have appreciated Gwon's other works will likely appreciate this one as well. Sonically, there are many similarities to ORDINARY DAYS especially.

While I would like to hear how the score might sound with additional instruments (only a piano is used, and it is played by music director Andrea Grody), the small musical still packs a wallop of aural fun. Initially, at the performance I attended, there were curious sound balance issues between the performer (Ms. Edelen) and the pianist. However, it was only an issue for the first song. From what I heard of that song, Ms. Edelen sounded lovely. Best known as a powerful belter, she's more versatile as a singer and actress than one might realize from how she is usually cast in Signature Productions. She wholly impressed me here in ways she has not done before and was simply the standout performer.

Director Joe Calarco brings out the best of his cast and keeps the show moving swiftly for a fun-filled ninety minutes or so. These ninety minutes are well worth your time.

Running Time: Around ninety minutes with no intermission.

CAKE OFF runs through November 22 at Signature Theatre - 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at 703-820-9771 or purchase them online.

Credit: Sherri L. Edelen (Rita Gaw) and Todd Buonopane (Paul Hubbard) in CAKE OFF at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.


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