The Women’s Voices Theater Festival: ‘Cake Off’ at Signature Theatre

Signature Theatre’s Cake Off, is an appetizingly savory musical petite-four disguised as a mere head-turning sugary iced cutie. It is a whiz-bang production full of high-flying, screwball comic work topping sharp issues involving the crazy times that many people, whether female or male, can find themselves in during separation/divorce especially when custody of children is involved; all encircled by ever-present, gender inequalities.

Sherri L. Edelen in "Cake Off." Photo by Margot Schulman.
Sherri L. Edelen in “Cake Off.” Photo by Margot Schulman.

Cake Off is based on a small-scale straight-play, Bake Off, written by Sheri Wilner, with book by Sheri Wilner and Julia Jordan. According to program notes, the play was brought to the attention of Joe Calarco, Signature’s Resident Director and Director of New Works, by Julia Jordan whose Murder Ballad was recently produced by The Studio Theatre. The Signature production of Cake Off is part of the part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. 

Under the sure hands of Director Calarco, Cake Off audiences are blessed with a cast with solid singing prowess, along with the acting talents to deliver madcap moments that turn-on-a-dime to deeply authentic scenes of personal anguish. The cast features DC local favorite and Helen Hayes Award recipient Sherri L. Edelen, Broadway’s Todd Buonopane, and DC/Baltimore area acting veteran Jamie Smithson.

Cake Off’s 14 musical numbers are generally unhurried, often gentle tunes as well as several rousing boisterous numbers from Adam Gwon. The lyrics, ranging from sweet to frisky to deeply honest, are by Julia Jordan and Gwon. The show’s music direction and singular piano playing is by Andrea Grody, the book is Sheri Wilner and Julia Jordan.

The set-up is this: It is 1996; the times have been changing in an unexpected way.  It is the 50th anniversary of the Millsbury Cake Off context.  Yes, that is correct, Millsbury. For the first time ever, men can enter the contest showing-off their baking prowess. With the entry of men comes a no-coincidence major bump-up in the top prize winner. The prize is now one million dollars. The revolutionary baking show now with men is to be televised live.

Sherri L. Edelen and Todd Buonopane. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Sherri L. Edelen and Todd Buonopane. Photo by Margot Schulman.

From this premise, the Signature ARK audience come to know two “average Joe and Jane” contestants. At first we come to know an apparently introverted, serious, divorced and “oh-so-precise Rita Gaw (Edelen). Next appearing is a chatty, exuberant, nervous, just separated Paul Hubbard (Buonopane). Then there is a hyperactive, overly-smiling, rather smug television announcer named Jack DeVault (Smithson). Smithson later morphs into two “minor” characters with glorious major impact; Lenora Nesbit and Nancy DeMarco.

Over the course of the next 90 minutes, the Cake Off flows energetically between a comic “a slowly I turned, inch by inch, step-by-step” take on highly-charged, unequal gender situations or authentic takes on the obsessions, hurts, humiliations, and mindsets of both men and women when they are “left” by a spouse and are seeking ways to prove their worth to themselves and others. All this while there are three hectic rounds of “baking” cakes right before the audience.

The comic talents of Edelen, Buonopane, and Smithson were easily apparent. The production gives the three actors the opportunity to put on hilarious trickster war-paint, both literally and figuratively. But for all the wild comedy, what touched me were the visuals of Edelen’s Rita fear of being disgraced and Buonopare’s Paul fear of humiliation.

In the close confines of the ARK, I saw such “real” expressions of pain, love, exasperation and God-knows how many other feelings past over the face of Edelen. I was left in awe. It was as if she was channeling someone she knew very well. For Buonopane, I saw many a man I have known quite personally who was overtaken by feeing unmanly in the eyes of his children when his wife left him for a more “virile” type. Just know that the production gives both the opportunity for the actors to put their hilarious trickster war-paint on, both literally and figuratively.

As for Smithson, he is more than a simple comic presence. His characters are glue and electricity whether the male Jack, or the under-stated in appearance women who want to help Rita win the baking contest and is huge prize.

Ian Berlin has an important role, even with just a few lines as Paul’s 12 year-old son who with one affirming gesture brought the house down.

The musical score may not be built to be memorable, but it carries the show along nicely; usually hidden under all the goings-on, adding energy to the comic moments and emotional tenderness to the melancholy moments.  Song titles do more than hint at what to expect such as “You Can’t Have This,” “Less Like Me,”, “Rita in the Mirror,” and the final musical number, “Transform.”

The production’s creative team includes Scenic Designer Jason Sherwood, Costume Designer Frank Labovitz, lighting design by R. Lee Kennedy and sound design by Lane Elms. Together they created a pint-size television studio set highlighted with an oft-used turn table that regularly provided cunning splashes of funny physical moments. The set included two ovens, plenty of bowls, whisks, as well as real eggs, plenty of flour and colorful ingredients that are put to anarchic use. John Belushi, may God rest his soul, would have been much pleased.

Jamie Smithson and Sherri L. Edelen. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Jamie Smithson and Sherri L. Edelen. Photo by Margot Schulman.

As Cake Off careens about, it is more than that old Mad Men-like slogan, “nothing says lovin’ like something from the oven.” What could have been a puffed up, fluffy TV sit-com, is a snappy musical with messages and arguments that can be heard by both sexes. It is a witty, thoughtful little musical nugget with a fresh take on gender conflicts and personal losses, rather than a blunt force instrument. With its high production values, top-flight cast and overall kindness toward humanity, Cake Off is a little gem to be enjoyed.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

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Cake Off  plays through November 22, 2015 at Signature Theatre — 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

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