BWW Review: WAITRESS Serves Up Life, Love , and Laughs at THE ARONOFF CENTER in Cincinnati
The film, Waitress, written, directed, and acted in by Adrienne Shelly (Dawn), was a surprise success in 2007, standing out for its quirky humor and understated style. It could have been a huge step forward in Shelly's career, if it weren't for her tragic and untimely death before the movie even hit theatres. It was a film that has accumulated a number of fans despite some disparaging reviews from critics; in fact, people still can't seem to agree, as Waitress tends to be awarded either 10 stars or 1 star in online customer reviews with hardly anything in between. The performances are judged as either "nuanced" or "wooden" and characters as either "exquisitely drawn" or "empty stereotypes." Now, some ten years later, Waitress has been given a big Broadway make-over by Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles (music and lyrics) and, although Jessie Nelson (book) has made some helpful changes to the script, the show still never seems to fully rise. The musical is thoroughly enjoyable, but the premise has just been kneaded until overworked.
Waitress and pie-baker for Joe's Pie Diner, Jenna is a bright and culinarily ambitious woman flattened like dough under the rolling-pin of her abusive and loveless marriage. She's burdened even more by the discovery of the tiny, growing, pie in her own "oven." (You might as well get used to pie puns and baking as metaphor-for-life because Waitress has plenty.) Her friends and co-workers have love-related problems of their own. Becky is married to a much older man who apparently is in diapers and has lost the ability to speak, and Dawn is in need of a "make-over" to not only her hair and make-up, but her confidence, too.
Throughout the course of the play, lonely people yearn to feel wanted, adulterous love affairs happen, romance brews between unlikely lovers who bond (and we're talking in the bedroom) over an obsession with Revolutionary War reenactments, dreams are made and lost, an abusive past is revealed, babies are born, old men die, lots of dancing happens, and pies are made. The truth is, by the end of Waitress...I wasn't sure how I was supposed to feel. The subject matter and its delivery never seemed to align as silly hijinks obscured the profound loneliness, and colorful and kooky pie recipes softened the blows of domestic abuse. Eventually, everything was topped with a sickly-sweet deus ex machina ending, and the realization that having a child is all a woman needs to feel complete as the cherry. The characters are thoroughly dredged through sweet and through sour, and yet I was left only with a trifling aftertaste.
This is not to say that it wasn't a pleasant evening! Sara Bareilles' score is poppy and quite lovely when the harmonies are in full bloom. The talented Diane Paulus directed, and though last month's Finding Neverland gave Paulus more creative material to play with, you can see her skillful and detailed hand at work here as well. She is helped by terrific casting. The trio of waitresses, Jenna, Becky, and Dawn, worked together like a well-oiled machine, each understanding their functions perfectly and, in the case of Becky and Dawn, making their stock characters utterly satisfying.
Desi Oakley does an admirable job as Jenna, her expressive face and eyes doing much of the work. Oakley's voice emanated effortlessly into the house and, every so often, just when you thought it was time for her to run out of air, she could evoke what seemed like hidden bellows of reserve power. Charity Angel Dawson, who plays Becky, a co-worker with a larger than life confidence, could have easily overpowered, but she wields her dynamism skillfully, only really letting loose during her Act 2 opener, "I Didn't Plan It", with a build that could blow out the back wall of the theatre. Lenne Klingaman as nerdy Dawn had impeccable timing and added three dimensions to her flighty, supporting character. When all three sang together, the blend was magical.
The men also made the best of the material. The relationship between Jenna and her gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter, was saved from delving into creepy territory by the sheer charm of Bryan Fenkart's performance. And, Jeremy Morse (Ogie) simply brought down the house with his rendition of "Never Ever Getting Rid of Me."
The small and tight ensemble of two guitars, percussion, piano, and bass that accompanied the actors easily fit on stage. Pies were piled high on the piano and band members blended in to the scenery, coffee cups in hand, adding to the overall liveliness of the production.
Overall, Waitress is a charming and confusing confection. All of the ingredients seem to be there. They aren't quite measured correctly, but who cares? It still tastes great!
Photo by Jane Marcus