When a bright-eyed valedictorian finds tuition at Harvard University inadequate, the next logical step is to open an underground business selling edibles from his family’s bakery, right? At least protagonist Jane Huang’s “Baked! Deepak Kumar and Jord Liu’s sweet, fun coming-of-age show The Musical. Although billed as a developmental production, this fully staged musical is already worth seeing at the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, where Grace Dolezal-Ng directs a captivating all-Asian American cast.
Sunnie Eraso, a recent Northwestern graduate, plays Jane, the daughter of Mingli (Nick Joe), whose family has run a Chinese bakery in Minnesota for three generations, and Yunzhou (Mariel Saavedra), an immigrant grieving the recent loss of her own father. Go back home. Rounding out the main characters are Kasey (Devon Hayakawa), Jane’s best friend, and Z (Reilly Oh), their drug-dealing classmate-turned-business partner.
“Baked!” It covers many familiar themes, including the development of friendships and family relationships as children grow, the pressures on successful young Asian Americans, the sacrifices of immigrant parents, and the tension between their hopes and their children’s dreams. But Kumar and Liu’s recipe offers a particularly effective mix of quirky humor and poignant moments, bolstered by strong performances from the entire cast. Featuring a grittier story than the typical narrative of the devoted best friend, I was impressed by the thoughtful development of supporting characters like Kasey and the multi-generational subplots involving Mingli and Yunzhou. Even Z, the alternative punk kid who reminds me of my high school classmate, has a humanizing back story.
Kumar and Liu’s music features driving rhythms, an upbeat sound, and tight harmonies that are somewhat reminiscent of “Dear Evan Hansen,” but without the vaguely churchy vibe I get from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music. This simple orchestration, with musical director Tyler Miles on keyboards and Noel Streacker on percussion, doesn’t sound too sparse, instead allowing the lyrics and vocals to shine. While I didn’t walk away humming any tunes, the songs did an excellent job of moving the story forward.
Watching this show in 2023 naturally brings to mind the ongoing political fights over student debt cancellation. Jane has already been accepted to Harvard when the show begins, but the catalyst for her illegal business endeavors is being rejected by the full-ride scholarship she is required to pay for her freshman year. After overhearing his parents talking about the bakery’s financial problems, he lies to them and tries to get the money himself.
Brainstorming for solutions, Kasey suggests that Jane ask a billionaire to donate the money directly to her rather than funneling it through a shady foundation, arguing that $50,000 is a drop in the bucket for that kind of wealth. If that fails, you can still get a loan like normal people do, she says. It’s a funny scene, but underlying it is the fact that many promising young Janes underestimate the rising costs of higher education today.
Overall, the show maintains a light touch and offers a variety of opportunities for community members to deliver comedy bits. Peter Ruger makes a flashy return as the bugie phenom who turns Minnesota’s underground scene into customers for his teenage catering business. RJ Silva also gets a lot of laughs as a customer who gets a little overcooked at a festival hosted by Jane’s parents, thus spilling the beans on the entire operation.
The script could have afforded to raise the stakes even higher in the first act without losing its sense of fun. Things quickly fall apart in the shorter second act, and the consequences of Jane’s bad choices could be better fleshed out. But none of this stops the cast from delivering some truly touching moments.
Kumar and Liu, now in their late 20s, starred in “Baked!” They are working on it. for six years. Among other stops on Theo Ubique’s journey, the show was workshopped at the Den Theater and Underscore Theater Company in Chicago and premiered at the Chicago Musical Theater Festival in 2020. Matthew C. Yee “Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon” Another up-and-coming musical about Asian American characters followed a similar path; There was a staged reading at Steppenwolf in 2019 and a world premiere at Lookingglass in spring 2023.
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It’s hard not to worry about Chicago’s contracting theater industry’s ability to continue supporting talented young voices. The underline was permanently shut down in September 2022 and Steppenwolf And Mirror recently announced significant layoffs; The latter is currently on a break from producing the show. But there are also reasons for optimism: The Chicago Musical Theater Festival will continue with Kokandy Productions following its victory. 2023 Non-Stock Jeff Awards. Let’s hope writers like Kumar, Liu, and Yee continue to receive the support they need to produce their best work.
Emily McClanathan is a freelance critic.
Review: “Baked! The Musical” (3.5 stars)
When: Until October 8
Where: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, 721 Howard St., Evanston
Working time: 2 hours 10 minutes
Tickets: $40 or from 773-939-4101. theo-u.com