By John Dwyer
Bucks County Playhouse (BCP) premiered the new musical “Cake Off” the other night, and I must say I was impressed. And, quite frankly, a bit surprised.
I did not think there would be that much entertainment that could gleaned from the Pillsbury Bake Off. I had read reviews from the Washington Post, New York Times and DCTheaterScene.com, when the play was produced by the Signature Theatre as part of the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival –two favorable notices and one negative. I also had trepidation about the play, as it seemed very much like their previous musical premiere, “A Taste of Things to Come.”
I thought, “Is Bucks County Playhouse coming to the musical comedy/feminist/baking trough one too many times?” This and the earlier musical were both concerning women’s rights and the evolution of gender roles and equality. I found the earlier “A Taste of Things to Come” formulaic. But this is not the case with “Cake Off.”
“Cake Off” is an adaptation of a 10-minute, three-character play called “Bake Off” by Sheri Wilner. When it was workshopped in Arlington, Virginia, it became a 95-minute, four-character musical satire (the male contestant’s son was added) without intermission, co-authored by Wilner and Julia Jordan.
BCP has given it an intermission, and the book has seemingly expanded character development and added an opening number for the protagonist, female “Cake Off” contestant Rita Gaw (Michelle Ragusa). The intermission and opening/closing numbers focus the audience on Rita and helps delineate the show’s themes. In this mounting, with several adjustments, the creative team did make the batter better.
The premise of the play is based on the Pillsbury Bake-Off and what happened in 1996. The background story on this according to Wikipedia is that the first contest was held in 1949 as the “Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest” and hosted in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Until 1994, the grand prize was $50,000. Since 1996, the grand prize has been $1 million. The only required ingredient in the early contests was Pillsbury’s BEST Flour, and the only male champion was Kurt Wait, who won in 1996 (the first year a $1 million was offered, and Alex Trebek was the host). That year, 14 of the 100 finalists were men, according to Wikipedia.
In the roman a clef version, “Cake Off” pits Rita, a divorcee and third-time contestant against Paul Hubbard (Euan Morton), a first timer at the Millbury Cake-Off. It is also the first time $1 million is being awarded, and the first time men are contestants.
Both Rita and Paul, for different reasons, need to win. Rita sublimated her dreams of being a scientist when she got married. She is now a mother of five, working as a phone receptionist. She has frustration at where she is in life but, at least, she knows she is a good baker.
Paul is a patient care representative whose wife has run off with her personal trainer. He is trying to establish a better relationship with his son Wyatt, who is angry with his father. Paul hopes that if he wins the $1 million prize, it will bring him closer to his son. One of the highlights of the show is the emotionally stirring song “Less Like Me,” where Paul dreams of his son having a better reality and life than his. Euan Morton knocks the song out of the park.
The baking competition is overseen by Millbury host and TV legend Jack Devault, played with vigor and aplomb by Justin Guarini, who is known for his vocals, but what truly impresses is his dexterity as an actor. He plays three roles in the show — the primary is the smarmy Cake Off master of ceremonies, but he also takes on the roles of two other contestants, both female: Lenora Cass and Nancy DeMarco. With the playwright having the male actor, who plays the macho Jack DeVault, also play Lenora and Nancy, the audience is better able to see the absurdity of gender roles. There is an immediacy in realizing we would never ask a man to do certain things or act a certain way that, especially 22 ago, was the way we expected a woman to behave and act. Justin playfully and gleefully debunks female stereotypes. Aidan J Lawrence ably rounds out the cast as Paul Hubbard’s 12-year-old son, Wyatt.
The fine score by Adam Gwon and lyrics by Gwon and Julia Jordan have many highlights. Besides the aforementioned “Less Like Me,” there are Rita’s songs “Rita in the Mirror, “Piece of Cake,” and “Transform.” Those soaring melodies are matched by Michele Ragusa’s superb vocals. Also, there are the comic songs “Fun,” sung by Lenora (aka Justin Guarini), Rita, and Paul, along with Jack and Paul’s number “Do It for the Boys.” Both are hilariously funny.
Now a recipe is only as good as its ingredients, and the finest mixture has been brought into the kitchen with the four talented actors at hand. Euan Morton’s credits include his Tony- and Olivier-nominated performance as Boy George in “Taboo.” Justin Guarini’s growing Broadway credits include “Wicked,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and Pedro Aldomavar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” He also gave critically-acclaimed performances in the Bucks County Playhouse’s revival of “Company” and, in New York City Center’s Encore Series “Paint Your Wagon.” Michele Ragusa’s Broadway credits include “Young Frankenstein,” “Urinetown,” and Ragtime. And Aidan Lawrence is a star in the making, with regional credits of “Les Miserables” and “Lost in Yonkers.”
Gaye Taylor Upchuch is the director who has served us this tasty dish. Kudos to Choreographer Josh Prince, Scenic Designer Lauren Helpern, Costumer Sarah J. Holden, Lighting Designer Gina Scherr, Sound Designer Leon Rothenberg, and Music Director Andrea Grody.
The book is entertaining and compelling, the music excellent, and the acting flawless — a great date show. Cake Off is one of those marvelous, moving experiences where one can’t stop talking about the show with one’s date, partner, spouse or friend. It’s is a tasty treat with unexpected elements, and it’s all deliciously fun. I can’t say this for many shows, but with Cake Off, I want to come back for another slice.
Cake-Off is running at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope through Sept. 10.