Photo by Time Stops Photography
Baked the Musical might feel like an unusual choice for Theo Ubique to begin its ’23-’24 season unless you know that the theatre has had a long history of providing opportunities for lesser-known or brand-new shows, songbooks, and cabarets as well as its regularly excellent productions of such major works as Sweeney Todd, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and The Full Monty. With that in mind, artistic director Fred Anzevino’s faith in newcomers Deepak Kumar and Jord Liu and their “high” concept show makes complete sense even if you haven’t had any weed. And that faith is indeed rewarded in the first act, as the writers introduce us to a family of Chinese immigrants who are suddenly in danger of losing the bakery that has been in the family for generations. Kumar and Liu set up their plot dynamics very well; unfortunately, though, they run out of steam in an odd second act that features only five songs (two of which are reprises) and too-abrupt reversals by the show’s lead character.
The actors here, five main characters and a five-person ensemble, do a fine job throughout. Sunnie Eraso, fresh from Northwestern’s theatre program, plays Jane, a high school valedictorian heading to Harvard and the daughter of bakery owners Mingli (Nick Joe) and Yunzhou (Mariel Saavedra), parents who have always loved and supported her. Jane is ready to have a wonderful summer with her best friend and unquestioning supporter Kasey (Devon Hayakawa) when the unthinkable happens: she discovers that she is not, after all, going to be the recipient of the Best and Brightest scholarship, a full ride that she and her parents were counting on to pay for her college education. When Jane realizes how in debt they are and how disappointed they will be, she abruptly decides not to tell them, leaving her with a $50K shortfall to make up in ten weeks.
Enter Z (Reilly Oh), the designated druggie of the high school, a bright boy who gave up on his education very early on and has learned how to sell drugs on the street. (I’ll bet you can see where this is heading.) When Jane and Kasey’s brainstorming fails to uncover any means of getting the money that is more realistic than asking a billionaire to give it to them, Z’s presence gives Jane sudden inspiration: they can combine her baking skills and talent for planning with his supply of weed, giving them a summer business selling Chinese pastry edibles! Pure genius! After a token argument from Kasey, they decide to partner up with Z…and the plot is underway.
A secondary plot involves Mingli and Yunzhou, who is feeling terrible about not getting back to her family as her father was dying, desperately trying to get back in the black by staging a carnival. It’s no grand surprise that these two plots end up overlapping.
Director Grace Dolenzal-Ng moves things along briskly, but (like the authors) doesn’t quite know how to deal with things as the play nears its end. In the first act, Kumar and Liu present us with several high-energy songs from the opening “Heat” with the entire cast to Jane and Kasey’s “Last Hurrah,” about their final summer together, as well as “Get Baked,” as close as we get here to a title song. There are a couple of quieter numbers as well, as Jane’s parents contemplate both their dwindling finances and the impending departure of their only daughter, but most of the first-act songs are pretty pumped up. (Kudos here to music director Tyler Mills, percussionist Noel Streaker, and Mills’ assistant, Kai Elise: their two-piece band proves more than enough in this small theatre to make these songs work.) None of the second-act songs, though, manages to capture that energy (though “Know You the Most,” sung by the three family members, is the play’s most emotional number).
It isn’t just the music, though, that seems to be front-loaded in this play. Characters also suffer. The ensemble, which had been huge in Act One, is much less involved in Act Two. And Jane, who has always been counted on to be the good girl who does everything easily and right, finds herself making mistakes she has no idea how to fix. A couple of late decisions she makes go against everything we thought we knew about her and just feel wrong: the audience would be forgiven for wondering how she could ever do that. And another last-minute change—an out-of-character reversal of an out-of-character reversal—feels a bit too much like deus ex machina to make the ending really work.
Baked the Musical is a cute and likable show even if it does have some problems. It is clear that the second act needs work, and Kupak and Liu indicate in their author’s note that they do intend to continue to work on it. Among other things, they need to find an eleven o’clock number that can really elevate the act. (Maybe try moving “Know You the Most” closer to the end?) A good high-energy Act Two song would also help matters, as would making Jane’s late decisions more believable. But it’s a fun show even as it is, and no one needs to be high to enjoy it.