“Cooked!” at Théo Ubique is both quirky and touching

When a bright-eyed valedictorian finds herself short of tuition for Harvard University, the next logical step is to open an underground business selling edibles out of her parents’ bakery, right? not ? At least that’s the plan that protagonist Jane Huang concocts in “Baked!” The Musical,” a sweet and funny coming-of-age show from Deepak Kumar and Jord Liu. Although billed as a developmental production, this fully staged musical is already worth a visit at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theater, where Grace Dolezal-Ng leads a charming all-Asian American cast.

Recent Northwestern graduate Sunnie Eraso plays Jane, the daughter of Mingli (Nick Joe), whose family has owned a Chinese bakery in Minnesota for three generations, and Yunzhou (Mariel Saavedra), an immigrant who is grieving the recent loss of his own father. back home. The main characters are Jane’s best friend Kasey (Devon Hayakawa) and Z (Reilly Oh), their drug dealer classmate turned business partner.

“Cooked!” covers several familiar themes: the changing friendships and family relationships as children grow up, the pressures placed on young, high-achieving Asian Americans, the sacrifices of immigrant parents, and the tension between their hopes and dreams of their children. But Kumar and Liu’s recipe offers a particularly effective mix of offbeat humor and touching moments, supported by strong performances from the entire cast. I was impressed by the thoughtful development of supporting characters such as Kasey, who has a heavier arc than the typical loyal best friend narrative, and by the multi-generational subplots involving Mingli and Yunzhou. Even Z, an alternative punk kid who reminds me of a high school friend, has a humanizing story.

Kumar and Liu’s score features driving rhythms, an upbeat sound, and tight harmonies that are somewhat reminiscent of “Dear Evan Hansen,” but without the vaguely churchy vibes I get from the music of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. With musical director Tyler Miles on keyboard and Noel Streacker on percussion, the simple orchestration doesn’t seem too sparse but rather allows the lyrics and vocals to shine. Although I didn’t come away humming any of the tunes, the songs did a great job of moving the story forward.

Watching this show in 2023 is naturally reminiscent of the ongoing political struggles over student debt relief. Jane has already been admitted to Harvard at the start of the series, but the catalyst for her illicit business activity is being denied the full scholarship she needs to pay for her first year. After overhearing her parents discussing the bakery’s financial problems, she lies to them and tries to get the money herself.

Thinking about solutions, Kasey suggests Jane ask a billionaire to give her the money directly instead of funneling it through a questionable foundation, arguing that $50,000 is a drop in the bucket for this guy. of wealth. If that fails, she says, you can just take out a loan like normal people do. It’s a funny scene, but underlying it is the reality that many promising young Janes today face the rising costs of higher education.

Overall, the show maintains a light touch and provides several opportunities for ensemble members to deliver comedic bits. Peter Ruger gives a flamboyant turn as the bougie influencer who converts Minnesota’s underground scene into customers for the teen edibles business. RJ Silva also gets plenty of laughs as a customer who gets a little too much – well, cooked – at a festival thrown by Jane’s parents, spilling the beans on the whole operation.

Without losing its playful side, the scenario could afford to raise the stakes even further from the first act. Things fall apart quickly during the shorter second act, and the consequences of Jane’s poor choices could be made clearer. But none of this stops the actors from delivering some truly moving moments.

Now in their late 20s, Kumar and Liu are working on “Baked!” for six years. Among other stops on its journey to Theo Ubique, the show was workshopped at Chicago’s Den Theater and Underscore Theater Company, and it was presented at the latter’s Chicago Musical Theater Festival in 2020. “Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon” by Matthew C. Yee, another promising show. new musical about Asian American characters, followed a similar path, with 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 theater industry’s ability to continue to encourage talented young voices. Underscore closed its doors for good in September 2022, and Steppenwolf and Lookingglass recently announced significant layoffs, with the latter currently on hiatus from producing shows. But there’s also reason to be optimistic: The Chicago Musical Theater Festival will endure with Kokandy Productions, fresh off its triumph at the 2023 Non-Equity Jeff Awards. Let’s hope writers like Kumar, Liu and Yee continue to benefit from the support necessary to produce their best works.

Emily McClanathan is an independent critic.

Review: “Baked!” The Musical” (3.5 stars)

When: until October 8

Where: Théo Ubique Cabaret Theater, 721 Howard Street, Evanston

Duration: 2 hours and 10 minutes

Tickets: $40 at 773-939-4101 or theo-u.com

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