She's not just a doyenne of decorum and a kitchen confidante who dishes advice to American homemakers. Betty Crocker is electric in "I Am Betty."
Director Maija Garcia's new musical about the fictional first lady of food, which premiered Saturday at St. Paul's History Theatre, starts with "I Am Here," a clarion call of empowerment, resistance and joy. That opening song, with its lyrics about "roaring into 1921," sets the confident tone and some of the themes for a show that's about so much more than cooking.
The success of "Betty" is particularly gratifying to see because playwright Cristina Luzárraga and composer Denise Prosek set themselves a difficult task. But instead of trying to humanize a corporate brand, they built a story around the women, and the occasional interloping man, who made Betty Crocker a beloved household name.
Prosek's songs are efficiently transporting as they telescope a century's worth of musical styles. Sometimes, the songs feel close to things that are already in the repertoire, including Andrews Sisters-style harmonies and quiet storm R&B. And those numbers are all brought to vital life under Sonja Thompson's brisk, bright conducting.
Writing with precision and wit, Luzárraga freely exercises artistic license She simplifies how Betty Crocker got started and by whom, serving the narrative more than history. Sometimes reality can conflict with drama and in that tug-of-war, the tension is what keeps us on the edge of our seats.
Luzárraga and Prosek cleverly tie myriad themes together over the course of "Betty," keeping us bated with a focus on three characters. The first act revolves around Marjorie Husted (Erin Capello), the dynamo who built Betty's brand and helped make her into an icon before being suddenly dumped by the company.
Barbara Jo Davis (Lynnea Doublette), the first Black Betty, and Rosa, a Cuban grandmother who learned English and how to be an American through exposure to Betty Crocker (Kiko Laureano), anchor Act 2.
Moving in Sarah Bahr's costumes that go from frumpily encumbering to light and free, the performers soar. Capello's Marjorie is modern and self-assured as she tries to balance career and love. The actor is outstanding on "Something More," belting out her longing for equality and recognition in the workplace even as the number gets turned into a desire for companionship later.
It's as if Capello's soaring soprano helps to manifest a man in Marjorie's life, and one who's happy to be called "Mr. Marjorie Husted."
Doublette is similarly sublime, delivering with longing and authority about her dream to be Betty: "I Want to Be Her." Doublette also plays a postman and is part of the quick-change versatile ensemble.
Laureano brings a touch of spicy flavor with "Lo Bueno Con Lo Malo," or "you have to take the good with the bad." Her well-played character also helps to broaden our understanding of the scope and influence of Betty Crocker.
Don't sleep on the other members of this nine-member all-female cast. With just a vocal tick, Jennifer Grimm effectively summons Bing Crosby. Tiffany Cooper injects wit in the pants role of a dapper Ken Davis, Barbara Jo's beloved. Camryn Buelow and Olivia Kemp also play manspreading male parts to comical effect.
They say too many cooks spoil a dish but that's not true in "Betty." Anna Hashizume, Kemp and Ruthie Baker also have a hand in making this show so entertainingly provocative and, well, delish.
'I Am Betty'
Who: Book by Cristina Luzárraga. Composed by Denise Prosek. Directed by Maija Garcia.
Where: History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul.
When: 10 a.m. & 7:30 p.m. Thu., 7:30 p.m. Fri., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Dec. 23.
Tickets: $30-$74. 651-292-4323 or historytheatre.com.