Cake Off is a world premiere musical presented by Signature Theatre based upon the original play by Sheri Wilner. Written by Sheri Wilner (book), Julia Jordon (book and lyrics), and Adam Gwon (music and lryics), Cake Off follows Rita Gaw (Sherri L. Edelen) and Paul Hubbard (Todd Buonopane) as they compete in the 1996 Millberry Cake Off, the first year that the prize money is raised to one million dollars, drawing male competitors for the first time.
They say it’s a man’s world and it’s an easy thing to believe. Women still don’t receive equal pay and while more jobs than ever are open to women, we still don’t see a ton of executives and CEOS that are women. In addition to professional inequality, women also have to battle each other for respect for their personal choices. I routinely here that it’s such a shame that I’ve given up on a career, asked “what do you do all day, “ and worst of all get deemed by male celebrity as just a home cook. Never mind that I routinely bake and cook from scratch for my family and I personally create multiple holiday feasts in a year and blog, take care of a baby and a home. Women are still often labeled with disdain as “home cooks” or “ just bakers” while male chefs get the lion’s share of acclaim. After watching the brilliant, complex, hilarious world premiere of Cake Off at Signature Theatre I was left contemplative, exhausted from laughter and delighted. I felt so much connection to Rita Gaw, played with tenacity and grace by local treasure Sherri L. Edelen and it’s truly a show that hasn’t left my mind for days.
As part of the Women’s Voice Theatre Festival (hooray for DC being such a great area for women in the arts), Cake Off examines the hypothetical events that occur around the Milberry Baking Competition the first year that men are eligible to compete. As rules change and both genders are allowed to participate in something previously restricted, what happens to those in crossfire? Who makes the rules? Who decides when something is open to one gender or the other? And, what happens when you live and develop outside the expected norm?
Does all that sound pretty deep for a musical comedy? Well, these are deep questions, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a fun AND a thought provoking show. Cake Off is also filled with biting satire (“You Think Milberry” & “Be A Little Sweeter”), tender heartfelt lyrics (“Less Like Me” & “Transform”) and will make you jump to your feet with applause for the passionate (“You Can’t Have This”) and talented cast. Much of the music has an Adam Lippa lilt and is so infectious you’ll be humming the melodies for days.
Todd Buonopane as newly single dad Paul Hubbard achieves a very emotional and enthusiastic performance. Sherri L. Edelen is stunning, both in vulnerability and moxie as seasoned competitive baker Rita Gaw. The interplay between Buonopane and Edelen is fascinating to watch as they volley their lines and perform extremely complicated cooking choreography together. Jamie Smithson gives several multilayered performances in his roles as Jack DeVault, Leonora Nesbit and Nancy De Marco. Whether singing a corporate theme song smarmy – charmy swagger or playing two very different older women, with only minimal costume and props, Smithson completely disappears into each very distinguishable character.
While I could rhapsodize about the ingenuous, adorable set design from Jason Sherwood or the elegant piano music supplied by Andrea Grody, I find I’m still contemplating the bigger issues of this piece. I haven’t been in the kitchen lately without thinking of Cake Off and what my place in the kitchen both means to me personally and what it means to others.
When a piece of theatrical work can make you laugh, truly full out belly laugh, that’s a gift. It’s also a gift when a work can make you think about yourself and your world in a different way, but if you can find a theatrical work that both delights and inspires reflection you’ve truly found a treasure. Cake Off is a sweet gift for audiences and a show not to be missed.
Kari Liked: I love the story, thought the production was magical and the performances in Cake Off were utterly brilliant.
Kari Didn’t Like: There was a bit of profanity in one of the early songs that just didn’t fit and took away from the rest of the number.
Cake Off was a highly enjoyable night from beginning to end. If Christopher Guest wrote a musical about baking competitions, this would be it. Sheri Wilner, Julia Jordan, and Adam Gwon skewer the competitions themselves, the competitors, reality television shows, and corporate greed, all while taking on gender politics, and what we view as success.
I loved Cake Off. I really relate to Paul. Paul tries so hard and means so well. He is definitely an average run of the mill screw-up type, but he does care deeply for people. Todd Buonopane does a great job getting us to connect with this character and sings well to boot. Sherri L. Edelen also does a great job imbuing Rita with a desperation and sadness that really shows through. Jamie Smithson isn’t to be overlooked for the different characters he plays either. He really does a great job showing the differences in those roles. All of them bring depth and humanity that is a joy to watch.
Julia Jordon and Adam Gwon did a great job with the music. Their songs give the cast many wonderful opportunities to show us what they’re feeling. Particular standouts include “No Distractions,” “Gonna Be a Good Day” and “You Think Millberry.” I dare you not to pump your fist in the air for “You Can’t Have This.” You’re also made out of stone if you don’t cry a little bit during “Less Like Me.” Stone.
The technical aspects of Cake Off are really impressive. They work with a lot of real food elements like chocolate, candies, flour, and even eggs. The actors also have to manage swap outs of food products to show us that they’re completed. All this is done on a turntable in the middle of the stage. And it was handled very well. Jason Sherwood should be proud of his Scenic Design for this production.
I did have some problems with Cake Off. The language is a little saltier than I prefer (in case you’re wondering, definitely not child appropriate) in some cases for justified reasons and sometimes not. The plot also gets a little forced towards the end so that they can make the points they need to make. But the points the authors are making are valid ones. What’s most important is what they’re saying, not how they’re saying it. It’s really an enjoyable night at the theatre that should make everyone think, and start conversations about what really is important in life.
RJ Liked: How deftly Cake Off not only dealt with how gender wars effect women, but also the men that don’t measure up to determined standards. And how they handled those bakes on that turntable.
RJ Didn’t Like: It felt short. I want to have more time with these characters. The plot also did less some credibility towards the last fifteen minutes of the show.
For more information and tickets for Cake Off at the Signature Theatre playing September 29th through November 22nd, click here!
(We received complimentary media tickets for this review, however all words and thoughts are our own.)
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