Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
I Am Betty is, then, the story of the quintessential American homemaker and how a corporate-created ideal became a beloved symbol whose array of tips and products improved their lot yet was also seen by some as a symbol of the suppression of women's ambitions. The show depicts Betty Crocker in tandem with changes in the status of American women through the twentieth century and on to the current day, making for an engaging, if cursory, survey of the arc of our social history. I Am Betty is breezily entertaining, informative, and burnishes a glow of hometown pride.
Why hometown pride? History Theatre's mission is to tell the stories of our region and its people. The Betty Crocker regional connection stems from the fact that General Mills is a Minnesota-based company, going back to 1866 when the Washburn Mill began operations along the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. By 1921 it was one of the nation's foremost producers of milled-grain food. From this juncture, Cristina Luzárraga's book and Denise Prosek's music and lyrics (Luzárraga is credited with additional lyrics) begin the story of Betty Crocker by introducing us to Marjorie Husted.
Marjorie, a University of Minnesota home economics graduate and a divorcee, is hired to supervise the team of women responding to consumer mail. It was her notion to answer all letters with the same name, a name to inspire confidence in homemakers, thus giving birth to Betty Crocker. I Am Betty shows Marjorie creating a host of schemes to promote the company while improving the wellbeing of American families–specially its women, who can't get enough of "Betty's" time and labor-saving tips and products. It is Marjorie's idea to appear as Betty Crocker on a regularly scheduled radio show, and she devises an on-air school for homemakers, sending certificates signed by Betty Crocker to listeners of her informative broadcasts. The Betty Crocker cookbook is her idea, becoming second only to the Bible in book sales. She hatches the notion to recruit Hollywood celebrities to chat with "Betty" on the air (giving I Am Betty cast members a chance to do impressions of Shirley Temple, Bing Crosby, and others) as they claim to be loyal users of the company's products.
In the Great Depression, Betty Crocker's money-saving tips make her even more a hero. With the onset of World War II, as women go to work in war industries, she praises their contributions to the war effort while dispensing ways to make their responsibilities at home more manageable. After the war, though, women who had been out in the world of work for the first time are shunted and isolated back home. For many, what Betty offers is no longer enough. Some turn to drink, drugs, or therapy for relief, until they come face to face with a different type of Betty–and the Women's Liberation Movement.
The second act picks up at this point, with the women on the Betty Crocker team torn between those fighting for equity with their male counterparts, and others who don't want to rock the boat. They argue: Is Betty Crocker a symbol of the oppression of women or a conveyor of resources to reduce women's work in the home and free them for other pursuits? Barbara Jo, a new manager who is African American, asserts that those are the concerns of white women with money, and that Black women have always had to do it all, work and family. She continues, undaunted, to move the company in product development and its reach to more households.
A family in Miami appears, with a Cuban immigrant named Rosa relying with near-religious faith on Betty Crocker's recipes to cook "American food" for her family, while her rebellious daughter Lina argues that they should be eating Cuban food. Nonetheless, we are meant to view the American image depicted by Betty Crocker as a tool that helps Rosa and Lina (and many more like them) assimilate into new lives. When it is Barbara Jo's time to pass the baton–or, more aptly, the red spoon–to the next "Betty," she does so with pride in having been one of a long line of women whose work made it easier for American families to live whole lives while passing through decade after decade of change.
Luzárraga's book for I Am Betty does a splendid job of condensing a century of social history into two acts. Prosek's score is notable for adapting the musical stylings to each decade, from opening with ragtime, to boogie and jitterbug, to swing, to doo-wop girl-group sound, soul, disco, 1980s anthem rock, and a contemporary pop sound. While none of the songs are particularly memorable, they are well integrated into the show, expanding on themes presented in the book scenes and, on several occasions, delving more deeply into characters' feelings.
Maija García's direction maintains the momentum of a narrative traveling over a large time frame, while always maintaining clarity and focus. Several dance numbers by choreographer Renee Guittar bring additional vibrancy to the production. The score has been well orchestrated by Jason Hansen to make optimal use of the four-member band led by music director Sonja Thompson. Design elements serve the show well, with videos providing historical context to complement the narrative.
The cast of nine women each play multiple roles, including the men's roles, as well as forming the ensemble. The biggest single role is Marjorie, beautifully played by Erin Capello, conveying the woman's confidence, drive and vision, along with an awareness of what she is sacrificing–and sung with the same compelling voice Capello brought to Theater Latté Da's Next to Normal last spring. Capello also shines as Lina, the Americanized daughter of Cuban immigrant Rosa. As Rosa, Kiko Laureano gives a persuasive performance, conveying love for her daughter and hope for a bountiful American future.
Lynne Doublette is excellent as Barbara Jo, expressing determination to make a mark as a Black woman stepping into the white world of Betty Crocker. She brings conviction to her songs "I Want to Be Her" and the eleven o'clock spot, "Barbara Jo's Lament/From Scratch," joined by Tiffany Cooper as Barbara Jo's mother, Zelma. Cooper also plays barbeque sauce purveyor Ken, who creates heat matched with Doublette in "Simmer and Wait." Jennifer Grimm brings a gorgeous voice to the fore in "Trudy's Lament" and is a kick-ass Betty Friedan. Anna Hashizume is winning as Ruby, joining with Capello's Lina in the upbeat "I Add an Egg." Olivia Kemp is a strong ensemble member, but as Marjorie's long-suffering love interest, Wally, she does not project the strength it would take to believe she is even in the running for a dynamo like Marjorie's attention.
I Am Betty clearly is about more than the phenomenal longevity of a corporate icon. It is about an idea of womanhood and how that idea was shaped by changes in consumer culture, technology, and world events. The argument that products making it easier for a woman (the idea of a man in the kitchen is not broached) to access nourishing, tasty meals–whether she does so as a career woman or as a homemaker, for herself alone or for a family–are desirable and represent social progress, undergirds the show, and everything on stage makes a good case for that argument.
There is also that element of hometown pride in our corporate giant, General Mills, still robust after 167 years, and its array of successful products, along with local references that draw smiles and soft laughter from audience members. These conspire, along with its affirming message that aims to show support for women through thick and thin, to make I Am Betty a pleasing, even uplifting, show. While it does not rise to the level of an exceptional achievement, with a talented cast, high caliber staging, and a well-crafted book and score, I Am Betty delivers the onstage equivalent of a Betty Crocker cake mix's promise: a perfect cake every time.
I Am Betty through December 23, 2023, at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. For tickets and information, please call 651-292-4323 or visit historytheatre.com.
Book and Additional Lyrics: Cristina Luzárraga; Music and Lyrics: Denise Prosek; Director: Maija García; Music Director: Sonja Thompson; Orchestrator: Jason Hansen; Choreographer: Renee Guittar; Scenic and Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Video Design: Leslie Ritenour; Cinematographer: Ryan Melling; Properties Design: Ursula Bowden; Intimacy Coach: Elizabeth Alli St. John; Production Manager and Stage Manager: Lee Johnson; Assistant Stage Manager: Jaya Robillard.
Cast: Ruthie Baker (Mr. Gale, Mildred, ensemble), Camryn Buelow (ensemble), Erin Capello (Marjorie, Lina, ensemble), Tiffany Cooper (Ida, Zelma, Ken, ensemble), Lynnea Doublette (Barbara Jo, ensemble), Jennifer Grimm (Trudy, Betty Frieden, ensemble), Anna Hashizume (Neysa, Ruby, ensemble), Olivia Kemp (Wally, ensemble), Kiko Laureano (Rosa, ensemble).