BWW Review: Touring Company of WAITRESS Serves Up Sumptuous Treat in Premiere at Connor Palace
If you were a Broadway investor and someone approached you with the idea of producing a musical about a waitress who worked in a diner, was an expert pie maker, in an abusive marriage, who gets pregnant, has an affair with her gynecologist, and whose only way out of the mess of a life, was to win a pie-baking contest, how likely would you be to plunk down your money? Oh, and the show will have an all-women development team.
Believe it or not, the money was raised, "Waitress" was mounted, and became a smash Big White Way musical. Now, the show's touring company, which rehearsed here, opened this week at the Connor Palace for a three-week run. It will then tour the country spreading cheer, and the smell of pies throughout the land, forever marked with a "made in CLE" trademark.
As you enter the lobby of the Connor Palace your olfactory senses will be assaulted by the strong smell of cinnamon and sugar. At every performance frozen apple pies are placed in convection ovens in fireproof boxes near the theatre's entrance to put you in the right mood.
According to Andrea Simakis, "Plain Dealer" writer extraordinaire, "A local Whole Foods, following Stacey Donnelly's lead (she is the owner of Cute As Cake, the bakery which supplies 1500 to 2,000 pies a week to be sold at the New York production of "Waitress") will provide 16 pies a week to trigger the olfactory fancies of Cleveland theater-goers."
The smell will be Cleveland, but the pies you can buy in the Connor Palace lobby are products of the Big Apple.
Simakis continues, "The day before "Waitress" kicks off its national tour in Cleveland, Donnelly will drive about 1,000 pies - Salted Chocolate Caramel and Key Lime - to Playhouse Square. Apple Crumble, another fan favorite, might be added to the order in the second or third week."
How is the pastry? Can't tell you. The line was too long for me to get to taste the delicacies, but an overheard opinion was, "the pies are as good as the production...delicious!"
"Waitress" has music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, who achieved general attention when her 2007 hit single, "Love Song," reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. She is listed on the "Top 100 Greatest Women in Music" and her memoir, "Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song" was published in 2015 and made the "New York Times" best seller list. To add the meringue to the top of the creation, she played the lead role in "Waitress" for a short time during its Broadway run.
The show's book is by Jessie Nelson. The original production was choreographed by Lorin Latarro and directed by Diane Paulus, making it the first Broadway show in which the four top creative spots were filled by women. (The same group is doing the touring production.) The posts of costume design and musical direction were also occupied by women. Talk about breaking the glass ceiling!
The musical is based on the film of the same name written by Adrienne Shelly. The motion picture, which was a hit at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, was marked by tragedy as Shelly was murdered three months prior to its showing.
The touring production is wonderful in every way. The well-chosen cast, the creatively designed fragmentary scenery which helps the staging smoothly move along, the right stress on humor and angst, the well-played pop and indie rock music created by the on-stage six-member orchestra, and the finely tuned pacing, all work well.
Even the pre-curtain recording "turn off your cellphone" message, which was written by Bareilles, is special, setting a wonderful "smile" factor for the show.
Pert Desi Oakley sparkles as Jenna, the pie-maker superb and waitress extraordinaire. She has a fine singing voice and textures the role of Jenna to elicit strong emotional feelings of empathy from the audience.
Her rendition of "What Baking Can Do" effectively introduces her character, and "She Used to Be Mine" helps in the exposition of her personage.
Charity Angel Dawson is "awesome-right-on" as Becky, the earth mother waitress with a sassy mouth and "zaftig" bosom. Her voice wails and she compels in "I Didn't Plan It."
Lennie Klingaman is delightful as another waitress, Dawn, the geeky, Betsy Ross history-enactment specialist. She adds just the right level of ditziness to make the character real, and not a caricature.
Klingaman is matched by the scene-stealing, hysterically funny, Jeremy Morse, whose awkward Ogie appears to have forgotten to take his ADD meds. Dawn and Ogie's duet, "I Love You Like a Table" was the production's musical delight highlight.
Nick Bailey was so successful in creating Earl, Jenna's abusive husband, that when she said she was leaving him and wanted a divorce, there was protracted applause and cheers from the audience. His solo curtain call was met with some "boos," a tribute to his strong character portrayal.
Bryan Fenkart, Dr. Pomatter, Jenna's gynecologist, Larry Marshall, Joe, a diner customer who plays a major role in Jenna's ability to break from Earl, and, Maeisha McQueen, Dr. Pomatter's smart-mouthed nurse, were all excellent.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The quality of the music, the staging, the performances and the story line of "Waitress" assure that it will delight audiences as it traverses the country. It's a must see for anyone who loves musical theater at its creative best.
Tickets for "Waitress," which runs through November 5, 2017, at the Connor Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or by going to www.playhousesquare.org.