New musical is baked from scratch(es)

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Michael Toscano

Rita Gaw (played by Sherri L. Edelen) and Paul Hubbard (played by Todd Buonopane) are fierce competitors in a $1 million televised bake-off in the world premiere musical Cake-Off, on stage at Signature Theatre through Nov. 22. The musical is loosely based on the 50th anniversary Pillsbury Bake-Off of 1996.
Photo by Margot Schulman

It is surprisingly challenging to write about the world-premiere of Cake-Off, the comedy chamber musical currently being served up at Signature Theatre, without resorting to terrible, half-baked puns.

You see, it is a multi-layered exposition, alternately a sweet confection and a tart statement. Emotional conflict blends smoothly with nutty comedy and rises to a satisfying slice of life. Ummm. See what I mean?

Cake-Off is a farce. It is also satire with real bite, based on something that sort-of actually happened (if only as a starting point). There are moments both wildly funny and deeply poignant.

There is a score that, while unremarkable on its own, nicely helps move the story along, aids the energy flow, and provides a firm foundation for several bravura performances by the three primary cast members. And there’s even a gloriously cathartic food fight.

The reality ingredient comes from the famous Pillsbury Bake-Offs, which started in 1949 as a contest for women only. Cake-Off takes us back to 1996 and the 50th anniversary of what Sheri Wilner — who wrote the original straight play as well as the book for this musical version (together with Julia Jordan) — calls the “Millsbury Cake Off.”

That year was the first time males were allowed to compete, accompanied by the not-so-coincidental boost in prize money to a million dollars. As Wilner envisions it, it’s being televised live on a TV food network. The cakes…er, stakes…are high. That’s the sort-of-real part.

Meet the competitors

Schlubby, struggling Paul (Todd Buono­­­pane) bakes haphazardly with his admittedly odd 10-year-old son. He’s trying to prove he can be a winner, save his marriage to a woman who has “re-invented” herself and taken off with her trainer, and hold onto his boy.

He’s a shambling mess, under-achieving and less-than-macho, but open-faced and friendly as he tries to hold onto his homey life with his son.

His counterpart in the competition is Rita (Sherri L. Edelen), a woman with the precisely sharp mind of a scientist who submerged herself into mom-hood for five kids. She’s 52, and her hubby also split, leaving her to eke out a living as a receptionist.

It’s her third time at the “cake-off,” and the last time she’ll be allowed a bite at the apple (or, in this case, the Roasted Apple Cake she’s hoping will take her to the prize and a new life).

She’s coolly analytical, a chemist at heart, able to balance the elemental compositions of her recipes and McGuyver her way out of a lack of proper ingredients to produce tasty treats.

She’s also frustrated and bitter that social expectations — and her mother — pushed her away from science and into a life where she now has to be satisfied with enjoying the success of her children.

Rita and several other women we meet are angry that the prize money has risen so dramatically the year men are allowed into the contest, and that men seem to be getting preferential treatment.

(Appropriately, the show is part of the D.C.-area Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Wilner and Jordan present a strong “voice” that sees the challenges facing women as distinct, even as every action from, or for, one of the characters seems to produce a reaction involving someone else. But it’s not a zero-sum game; Wilner shows us everybody can gain in some way.)

The two additional female characters are played with gusto by the vividly funny (and male) Jamie Smithson, doing triple duty as he also holds the show together as a smarmy TV host with father issues.

Dynamic directing

This is one of those shows where you can see the hand of a strong director at work. In this case, it’s Signature’s own Joe Calarco. His imprint is strong enough that it should serve as a hardy template should this show have an afterlife when this debut production is over. As it certainly deserves.

As the competition begins, the contrast between Paul and Rita is in stark relief as she is seen peeling apples and extolling their natural wholesomeness in the early song, “Round One.” He is simultaneously tossing with careless abandon the Junior Mints into his batter for the Triple Layer, Triple Chocolate, Junior Mint Fudge Cake he invented with (and for) his son.

The pacing is dynamic and natural, with dozens of little touches that seem inspired by the confluence of timing, dialogue, scenic design (from clever Jason Sherwood), and even the props at hand.

Paul and Rita’s mini-kitchens face each other, like a partner’s desk, on a rotating stage that allows us full access to what both of them are doing. Their movements, sometimes in sync, sometimes in counter-point, are choreographed as carefully as any dance number, and timed to the music as they rotate.

While the three primary performers (we don’t meet Ian Berlin as Paul’s son until the end) each offer vibrant, multi-dimensional characterizations. While all go over the top, as well as under the skin, with their work, it is Sherri Edelen’s show.

In the late song, “Piece of Cake,” she is both powerfully funny and inspiring. The plot has her preparing two cakes at the work stations simultaneously. She manages to continue belting out the high energy number while applying lipstick and racing around the ovens.

Edelen’s movement becomes frantic at one point, as she tries to push the rotating stage with her foot to bring one of the ovens closer to her faster. I’m not even sure the quick motion could be seen by the entire audience. It is one of those little bits that make the material so effective in its execution.

“Piece of Cake” should drain any performer, but it’s followed by the anthem “You Can’t Have This (Round Three),” which Edelenshares with Buonopane. Both performers shake the rafters, and mess the place up with the aforementioned food fight.

And Edelenhas one final number to go, as the show-ending “Transform,” comes next. Here, Rita earnestly explores where her life is at the moment. Altogether, it’s a taxing trio of tunes, and Edelenis transcendent.

The music, by the way, is from Adam Gwon, joined by Jordan for the lyrics. It is easy and straightforward, able to organically underscore the emotional complexity of a given moment in a ballad or rise to complement Edelen’s strong voice in the more intense moments.

Buonopane (whom you might recognize as a hapless “Cabletown-NBC” human resources executive on TV’s late “30 Rock”) also has his star turns. He shines in the emotionally electric “Less Like Me,” when the sensitivity he layers into his comic work allows him to make this moment very real and very affecting.

Playing three roles at once

Smithson shows off impressive comedy chops and singing, as well. His TV host character, Jack DeVault, is pretty good. But he really shines as Lenora Nesbit, a faded Southern Belle who is facing her final defeat, and as Nancy DeMarco, a fabled contestant who won in 1962 with a space-age recipe involving Tang, the powdered “drink of astronauts.”

All it takes is a pair of earrings and a pocketbook, and this man becomes a woman. His work as DeMarco, counseling Rita to be sweeter and more feminine if she wants to win, provides a pivotal moment and sharply emphasizes a major theme while also being quite amusing. Smithson is a real find.

And so is Cake-Off. A surprisingly sour and off-center review in a certain daily newspaper doesn’t seem to have kept audiences away, at least on the night this reviewer attended. And it certainly didn’t stop the audience from thoroughly enjoying all 97 minutes of this show. You will, too. This cake is baked.

 Cake-Off continues through Nov. 22 at Signature Theatre’s ARK Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va.

Performance schedule: Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Matinee: 1 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 15.

There are open captioned performances Nov. 15 at 2 p.m. and Nov. 17 at 7:30 p.m.

Ticket prices range from $40 to $101. “Rush tickets” are available for $30 at the box office beginning one hour prior to each show. If the show is sold out, the tickets will be sold for obstructed-view seats.

Tickets may be purchased online at, by calling Ticketmaster at (703) 573-SEAT, or by visiting the box office during business hours, weekdays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and weekends from noon to 6 p.m.

For general information, contact Signature at (703) 820-9771.