Tuesday, November 28, 2023

"I Am Betty" at the History Theatre

I am Betty. You are Betty. We're all Betty! History Theatre's new original musical I Am Betty tells the story of American women in the 20th Century through the lens of Betty Crocker, as playwright Cristina Luzarraga noted in a talkback I attended. As you may or may not know, Betty Crocker was not a real person; she was a fictional persona created for marketing purposes by the Washburn-Crosby Company (later General Mills). But many women worked behind the scenes to make Betty, and the company, successful. This musical tells their stories, and through them, the history of women in America. Written and directed by women, the show features nine incredibly talented female performers playing all of the facets of Betty for a really fun, informative, and inspiring show. See it at the History Theatre in downtown St. Paul now through December 23, and enter here to win two tickets from the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers!

The musical spans a full century, from 1921 to 2021. We watch as Betty is created to answer letters to the company with tips for baking with Gold Medal Flour, and as Marjorie Child grows the brand, touring the country teaching classes and doing her own radio show. We watch a young Black girl named Barbara Jo Davis who wants to be Betty grow up to actually work in the test kitchens. She and other "Crockettes" helped to develop products that would become household names, like Bisquick and Hamburger Helper. And we also get to see people who use these products, like the isolated housewife who feels less alone when listening to Betty, and the Cuban immigrant who cooks Betty Crocker recipes to bond with her granddaughter. 

Erin Capello as Marjorie with the Crockettes
(photo by Rick Spaulding)
We watch these women continuing to work, while the world changes around them. From the Roaring '20s, to the Great Depression, to women entering the workforce during WWII, and then being forced out of it and into the kitchen in the '50s. At the end of Act I, a new Betty enters - Betty Friedan. Act II brings us into the present, with Women's Lib seemingly contradictory to the image that Betty Crocker presents of the happy homemaker. But Betty also gave women a voice, and support, and helped the world to see the value of their work in the home. This show lets us see all sides of Betty, or rather, the Bettys.

Denise Prosek, co-founder of Theater Latte Da, wrote the music and lyrics (with additional lyrics by the playwright), and it's a fantastic score. The great thing about it is that it changes musical styles to match the era, from doo-wop to disco to power ballads. In a way, it's also a brief history of American music of the 20th Century. And these women can really sing, accompanied by a small but mighty four-piece onstage band led by music director Sonja Thompson. Renee Guittar's choreography also changes style with the era, with some fun numbers, especially the cooking "boogie" series.

the cast of I Am Betty (photo by Rick Spaulding)
The nine Bettys in this show simply could not be better, every one of them playing multiple characters (including the men) and singing like a dream. Highlights in the cast include Erin Capello as a Marjorie to root for in the first act, and singing a fab rock ballad in the second act; and Jennifer Grimm stealing scenes both comedically (with a Minnesota accent that's better than anything you'll hear on Fargo) and with her unbelievable vocals, playing a wide range of characters and singing in a wide range of styles (including a pretty great Bing Crosby impersonation). Everyone in the cast is just terrific, and the ensemble sings, works, and plays together very well (also including Ruthie Baker, Camryn Buelow, Tiffany Cooper, Lynnea Doublette, Anna Hashizume, Olivia Kemp, and Kiko Laureano).

Maija Garcia directs the piece with momentum as we progress through the decades, pausing for some quieter moments as the women contemplate where they are and what they want in life. The multi-level set allows for plenty of movement and creative staging around the space. The worktable neatly fits under a raised part of the set, easily rolled out when needed, with stools and other props tucked underneath it. Projections of historical images and video footage help to orient us in time as the story progresses, and there are a few fun recorded videos of the cast. The fashions also progress through the decades, with changing pieces over basic white shirts and gray pants or skirts, and of course, plenty of Betty's iconic red. (Scenic and costume design by Sarah Bahr, video design by Leslie Ritenour, cinematography by Ryan Melling.)

I don't know of another Twin Cities theater so committed to producing new work, and telling local stories. I've been watching this one develop over the last few years, and I'm thrilled it's finally here! So put on your best apron and head to History Theatre for I Am Betty, a fun, well-written, informative, inspiring, and gorgeously sung new musical!