The right ingredients, in the right amount, in the right order, make the perfect cake, sings one baking contestant in the new musical, “Cake Off,” at New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse through Saturday, September 10.
Book writers Sheri Wilner and Julia Jordan, lyricists Jordan and Adam Gwon, and composer Gwon must have taken heed of their character’s prudent formula because “Cake Off,” though not perfect because it muddies some of its icing while making a final point that becomes more gooey than trenchant, is only a few edits and revisions away from being a show that can look forward to an off-Broadway run and a spate of regional theater successes.
This is higher praise than it sounds. Theaters throughout the area, and perhaps throughout the U.S., search constantly for a musical to introduce and get credit for launching, usually to little avail. “Cake Off” is the real article. Wilner and Jordan are snappy and bright in their dialogue without pandering or pushing their jokes. They can be alternatively snarky or sentimental and make their nimbly funny script seem natural. Even when they go for, and unfailingly grab, the satirical throat, their work is fun, perceptive, and on course for landing genuine jokes about recognizable situations without being camp for camp’s sake, overdoing their gags, or winking conspiratorially at the audience.
“Smart” is the word I’d use for “Cake Off’s” book, and I’d apply the same word for Jordan and Gwon’s lyrics.
No, they don’t ring with the poetry of Oscar Hammerstein II or the brittle sophistication of Stephen Sondheim. But Jordan and Gwon shy away from cliche and Hallmark hooey that mark most lyrics, even in hit musicals, and give their characters something to say that isn’t obvious and can’t be anticipated by the audience before the next line is sung. Only one song, “Less Like Me,” has real Golden Age heart, but the rest drive “Cake Off” forward in a way book material could not, tell you something about the baking contest that is at “Cake Off’s” center, and pick up the jaunty, witty tone we’ve been hearing in the dialogue.
Wilner, Jordan, and Gwon have a way with words, and their songs make you laugh while acquainting you with what is on a character’s mind or what is at stake as they heat their ovens and mix that batter. Gwon’s music has lively rhythms and keeps pace with his and Jordan’s lyrics. The score doesn’t impress as being beautiful or memorable, but it avoids the simplistic singsong and maintains a pace and tone that make the music integral to the piece.
Gwon helps create the energy that makes “Cake Off” so likeable and such a treat. The Bucks County Playhouse rehearsal schedule allows only two weeks for a show to get off the ground, and Wilner, Jordan, and Gwon’s work looks polished, poised, and ready for prime time.
Much thanks for that goes to director Gaye Taylor Upchurch and a remarkable cast that gives their characters depth, or informed comic touches, that provide dimension and keep people about whom we’re supposed to care from being cipher-like pawns in what, in lesser hands, could turn into a personality-less battle of the sexes and commentary on the reality of contests held for marketing purposes.
Upchurch follows the writers in letting the wit and sharpness flow organically by keeping them a part of the characters’ make-up or the natural offshoot of a character that has a special point of view, as in the three roles played with savory panache by Justin Guarini — who adds lots of flash and does so with an intuitive theatrical savvy that keeps each sly move delicious while never letting anything get too big or too bombastic.
While Guarini provides loads of fun, it is Michele Ragusa who sets the tone of “Cake Off” and gives you a character you want to root for — a woman longing to win in her last allowed entry.
Ragusa sells the opening number, one that shows her character’s talent as a chemistry whiz, while establishing a flesh-and-blood woman who takes the hoopla of the annual Millsberry Cake Off seriously and has an ardent and sincere desire to win because she is such a skillful and dedicated baker.
Euan Morton also has a lot to establish in his character — a man who enters the Cake Off during its first year open to men in an effort to bond with a teenage son being influenced by his mother’s physical trainer boyfriend — and subtly finds and plays all the facets he’s dealt.
Ragusa and Morton maintain the same sensibility that makes Wilner, Jordan, Gwon, and Upchurch’s work so admirable. They can be comic, and even sarcastic, upset, or angry, while keeping you interested in their personal and competitive plights. Their core of reality gives Guarini contrasting room to shine, while also staying in proportion, as a parody of a television emcee, a Cake Off contestant, and the most lauded of the former Cake Off winners. To Upchurch’s credit, she never puts Guarini in full drag in his female turns. A dowdy jacket here, earrings and a tiara there, mark the entire transition. Yet Guarini makes you revel and believe in his characters. He knows when to be coy and when to be businesslike and has an unfailing instinct to know when to add a clever mannerism or grace note to his delectable triple-layer performances.
“Cake Off” is not a blockbuster. It’s a modest show, but it is an excellent one in most details. The writers reveal, manage, and control their characters’ stories well. Only in the last eighth of the show are there some strident moments that don’t seem to gibe or work well with what came before. The writers want to stress some of the chicanery that accompanies big contests, and they go too far. Their ending is not satisfying and smacks of the 21st century attitude they have so smoothly and thankfully avoided.
I enjoyed the puns in the dialogue, and the bitchiness, and I admired how well the writers handled their serious themes — again until the end when they seem to cater to a forgone intention rather than a logical line. The best part is how much “Cake Off” entertains and how wonderful Guarini, Ragusa, Morton, and Aidan J. Lawrence, as Morton’s son, keep that entertainment afloat. “Cake Off’s” a keeper, and you should be happy to be among those who can see it first.
Cake Off, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, in New Hope, Pennsylvania, through Saturday, September 10, Tuesday through Thursday, 7:30, Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m. (7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 2), and Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, 2 p.m., $35 to $69. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.