On Stage: Food Fight

by Chuck Conconi

Though amusing, Signature Theatre’s ‘Cake Off’ bit off more than it could chew as a musical. 

Todd Buonopane and Sherri L. Edelen in "Cake Off." (Photo courtesy Signature Theatre)

Todd Buonopane and Sherri L. Edelen in “Cake Off.” (Photo courtesy Signature Theatre)

“Cake Off,” a light, new musical premiering at Signature Theater, is a cynically amusing look at a television bake off with a winning prize of $1 million. That kind of windfall creates dreams of new beginnings for the contestants, with an excitement hyped by the unctuous host of the annual Millberry Cake-Off competition.

We’ve seen shows like this before, and this one is more suited to a television situation comedy than a 90-minute theater production. It creates some drama with the unhappy lives of the two contestants, both with broken marriages, but with fantasies about all the problems all the money will resolve.

The saving grace of “Cake Off” is the comedic skills of Sherri L. Edelen (Rita Gaw) and the frenetic, casual talent so effectively enacted by a lovable Todd Buonopane (Paul Hubbard).

The musical by Sheri Wilner, based on her original play, and the book she also co-wrote with Julia Jordan, is part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, dedicated to new work by female playwrights. Jordan also co-wrote the lyrics with Adam Gwon, who wrote the music.

Gaw, whose husband ran off with another woman, takes creating winning cakes seriously. She sees baking as a precise science and understands the chemical reactions of the elements necessary for a successful cake. She is a woman who sacrificed her college career to support her husband’s and now finds herself in a menial job leading nowhere. Gaw is humorless and indifferent about how she looks, even for the television cameras. This is her third and last attempt to win the Millberry cake off.

Edelen, a familiar Washington-area actor with a commanding stage presence and a powerful singing voice, is believable as an unhappy, focused-on-winning Rita Gaw, facing her last chance to climb out of the emotionally draining hole in which she finds herself.

Buonopane’s Paul Hubbard is an affable man with an indifference to the preciseness of his baking ingredients. He’s one of those bakers who is successful with his cakes without knowing how or caring why. His wife has left him for a more physically-fit man and wants to take his son from him. This seemed to be an unnecessary back story that didn’t fit.

Edelen and Buonopane worked well together through the madcap antics reflecting the pressures of the competition while learning to trust and value each other. Jamie Smithson as Jack DeVault, the insincere on-camera host, is an inspired comic. He also comes on as two other absurd characters: Lenora Nesbit and Nancy DeMarco. His over-the-top performances are the most fun interludes in the production.

Joe Calarco directs this madcap food fight, with Jason Sherwood’s realistic television studio scenic design that includes a revolving stage with two baking sites with ovens filled with cakes. A Millberry Bake Off logo dominates the set. All the eggs, flour and other ingredients, lending a reality to the baking, must have been a complex problem for Julie Meyer, the production stage manager, to keep straight.

“Bake Off” has its moments with songs like “Rita in the Mirror” and “If I Won,” but I couldn’t help thinking the play would have been more effective without attempting to make it into a small musical.

“Cake Off” continues through November 22 at Signature Theater, 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, Virginia 22206. Tickets are $40-$101 and are available at 703-820-9771 or online here

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