I’m not going to lie to you: I consider myself a bit of an expert when it comes to TV baking shows. If you’ve ever chosen to watch one yourself, you can safely assume you’re in for a treat with Circa ’21’s latest Dinner Playhouse offering. Only the desserts, its book and lyrics by Barbara Campbell and its music by Brad Ross. It’s a musical about baking – though I’d say the only truly memorable ditty of the series was the aptly titled (and heavily covered) title number. But I concede that during Saturday’s performance, there wasn’t a song I remember that I didn’t like.
Director/choreographer Ashley Becher kept the stage image sweet, and the five Jefferson County Bake-Off finalists were a fun mix of quirky and familiar. The set for this TV bake, designed by Susan Holgersson, definitely plays off the many similarly-themed TV shows one might choose to watch. Among my favorite details was the versatility of each baker’s workstation – you never knew what they might get out of it next. Kendall McKasson, who was in charge of the show’s props, took care to stock the pantry with a diverse mix of items, though I noticed there were no stand mixers, which was odd given the competitive aspect of the plot. (Good thing no one had to make buttercream in this fictional bake!) And Jeremy Littlejohn’s lighting effects kept the scene looking great; I particularly liked his use of purples and blues to make each workstation stand out.
Only the desserts the county judges imposed strict and rather unrealistic deadlines for the tasks, and this, in addition to the flashy lighting, made the production look like television Nailed it. (Unreasonable delays aside, the Circa ’21 production, after all, is a musical, so cooking time has to fit the length of a single song.) I was struck by the fact that Becher’s cast of characters had an almost unrealistic connection to the start, and therefore the whole experience of Only desserts felt like an episode of The Great British Bake Off – including the “Ready, Set, Bake” requirement.
Unlike most reality TV contestants, there was no “I’m not here to make friends” moment. In fact, Elsa Besler’s character, Brandy, explicitly states that she has been there to make new friends. Besler excels at playing the stereotypical sloppy, slightly garish blonde with a heart of gold, and she’s dressed to perfection at all times by costume designer Gregory Hiatt. It turns out that Brandy not only can cook, but she’s also, ultimately, a classy lady and a good friend to her fellow finalist bakers, especially Sarah Hayes’ Jean, the seemingly sweet school nurse whose confidence flourished as the competition progressed.
The Becher actors collectively toed the line of ridicule with their characters, but they were always rendered endearingly so that the audience stuck with them. Other contestants included Lou (Marc Christopher), a burly transplant from Brooklyn whose personality changed from brusque to benevolent. Mildred (Shelley Walljasper), the four-time defending champion, was perhaps the closest thing this show had to a villain – she certainly had an opinion on how things should go, and clearly wished for another victory.
And then there was poor Emma (Lexi Rae Smith), fresh out of business school and a longtime finalist. Emma was dressed in an unflattering red and black costume that certainly stood out, and in truth, I had a hard time mentally justifying the costume sets Mildred and Emma wore, given that county fairs are held the most often in the summer, and suits just aren’t ideal clothing for working in a kitchen. (I’d also wonder about having most ladies in pomp at an all-day baking contest and strolling through a county fair on their break… But what do I know?) In this Plot-wise, I particularly enjoyed the pieces of each story being unpacked in a fun way that allowed the cast to explore their characters, the most notable example being Emma’s notable reveal in “Make It Big”, a number that features great tap dancing.
Do not be left behind by your competitors, Only the desserts The cast was rounded out by Bobby Becher’s Zack, Channel 93’s weather guru and competition host. Zack was quirky in an adorable way, and props to Becher for seeming shamelessly relishing his time on stage; the actor’s enthusiasm was simply contagious. I especially liked how logical it was for Becher to encourage the audience to applaud and sometimes cheer for the contestants. (It wasn’t quite audience participation, but it was engaging.) Benjamin Elias Nickols assisted Zack as announcer/stage manager, and while we didn’t see the performer often, his presence was good for a chuckle every time we did.
Only desserts is a sweet little romp of a show. Sure, the ending is a little predictable, but most baking contests are too, so that doesn’t matter. Director Ashley Becher’s friendly production looks great, sounds great, and I recommend ordering a dessert to show up at intermission so your time spent watching in the audience is also delicious. After all this talk of baked goods, you might really want one.
Only desserts is taking place at Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island IL) through May 14, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309) 786-7733 ext 2 and visiting Circa21.com.