Pennsylvania’s Bucks County Playhouse has seen two of its world premiere productions transfer to Broadway within the past four years: Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons, starring Tyne Daly, and Misery, a play by William Goldman, based on the Stephen King novel. Will the Playhouse’s current production of the new musical Cake Off be the next to move from bucolic Bucks County to the Great White Way? Probably not.
With a book by Sheri Wilner and Julia Jordan, music by Adam Gwon, and lyrics by Gwon and Jordan, the silly musical is set in 1996 at a televised cake-baking competition that has raised its winning prize to $1 million and is allowing male contestants for the first time in its 50-year history. Justin Guarini, a Bucks County native, who parlayed his fame as first runner-up (to Kelly Clarkson) in the first season of American Idol into a Broadway acting career, fuels the production with his high-octane charm and winsome singing voice. Sporting Michael Jackson moves and a patronizing tone, he’s a stitch as the contest’s disingenuous host, and even funnier when he appears in drag as an eliminated contestant from the Deep South, and as a former victor decked out Miss America–style. (There’s amusing mention of the winner’s Tang Meringue and astronaut John Glenn, and other cultural references probably best appreciated by baby boomers.)
Set designer Lauren Helpern adds to the fun. When characters leave her comely TV-kitchen set for a trip back to the hotel, the new locale is represented with clever simplicity by a sliding panel, a wooden wall decorated with typical “hotel lobby” artwork: a trio of matching, semi-abstract paintings suggestive of the sea (the hotel is in Miami), featuring images of shells and starfish in soothing shades of blues and browns. One only wishes that Gaye Taylor Upchurch, the production’s director, had devised more imaginative ways of accomplishing the set changes, rather than having stagehands distractingly roll set pieces around during solo singing spots.
Despite the thematic use of baking a cake as a metaphor for raising kids, the plot’s central rivalry—between Rita, a veteran “perfect mom” contestant, and Paul, a “failing dad” newcomer—feels insignificant, while Upchurch’s sluggish direction does nothing to up the stakes. Though the golden-voiced Michele Ragusa plays Rita with appropriate determination, Euan Morton is a bore as Paul. The scenes between Paul and Rita, and especially those between Paul and his insipid tween son, are deadly.
Though Gwon’s music is consistently compelling and sometimes pleasingly complex, the lyrics are mundane, full of predictable rhymes and often unrevealing of any new information about the characters or the proceedings. So while the score is enjoyable, it doesn’t add significantly to the show’s muddled expression of its important feminist message—the intrusion women feel when men, who have always had access to any domain they desired, enter into the few realms traditionally open to and controlled by women. While the musical builds to an excitingly messy climax (there’s a lot of egg throwing), the denouement is unconvincing and confusing. An unprompted reconciliation scene between Paul and his son is followed by an unchanged Rita belting a song titled “Transform.” Cake Off needs to bake a little longer before it’s ready for Broadway palates.
Cake Off runs through September 10 at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
Photos: Joan Marcus