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BWW Review: WAITRESS Serves at Des Moines Civic Center

BWW Review: WAITRESS Serves at Des Moines Civic Center

Waitress, the brave 2016 Broadway musical by Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson based upon the Adrienne Shelly film by the same title made its Iowa debut at the Des Moines Civic Center Tuesday December 5th, playing eight performances. Still in the midst of a successful Broadway run, the sweetly scored show earned four well-deserved Tony Award nominations including Best Musical and Best Original Score, and is now playing on National Tour across the USA.

The musical opens simply with a woman's voice singing, "sugar, butter, flour", a theme repeated throughout the show, resonating as a parallel to the bass line of action, empowerment and forward movement in the quest for gender equality. Waitress was the very first Broadway show with an all-female creative team, coincidentally in the same year the Metropolitan Opera produced their first opera written by a woman since 1903. It is unfortunate that we are still needing to point out these distinctions in the 21st century but alas here we are, rallying behind the female voice and ensuring they are heard. The collective female voice of Waitress shines through with catchy tunes that draw you in and pluck the right chords to make your heart ache, letting you know from the start you are on a journey which promises of hope, change and triumph.

It may be no coincidence that the male characters in this musical are less likeable than their female counterparts. With the exception of Ogie (the Dick Van Dyke meets Janet van de Graaf funny man, a vivid portrayal by the fabulous Jeremy Morse), I found the men a little bit icky around the edges. It could be the current headlines putting me on high-alert or the precise intention of the creative team to highlight gender inequality, but in the age of "me too", buzzers rightly go off when I see a woman saying no and being ignored or having her pathway blocked. As headlines continue to scream of incidences of predatory behavior in professional settings these moments were hard to stomach, but that could be exactly the point. The setting of Waitress suggests a time and place which is a bit behind as is implied by the gender-specific title. The musical is not, after all, called Server.

The star of the evening was Desi Oakley. As Jenna, Ms. Oakley displayed an impressive flexibility and ease, transitioning between vocal registers, while maintaining studio-recording quality, pitch-perfect intonation. Jenna inherited the fate of her mother but with her decision to leave a bad situation the cycle is broken and her daughter can have a different story. In her often monotone speaking voice we hear the pangs of despair and hopelessness which juxtaposes stunningly with gut-punching outbursts of song. Jenna reminds us that everyone has the right to dream and Waitress challenges us with the question, "Are you happy enough?"

It is to the creators' credit that we experience Jenna's disappointment along with her. The plot could have easily had Jenna running away with winnings of the $20,000 pie baking contest we hear tell of the whole show. But instead life happens, and Jenna doesn't make it to the contest. The audience is right there with her in the hospital while she is in labor being visited by her abusive, alcoholic husband and the wife of her doctor, the man she has had an affair with. It is a messy story and one that asks the audience to reserve judgement and be compassionate towards our heroine. Waitress reminds us that sometimes it takes being totally beat down and in a terrible situation to respect yourself enough to make new choices. It is easy to imagine that for every winning recipe, every Marshmallow Mermaid pie, Jenna had a few duds along the way. I found myself with tears in my eyes as Joe's Pie Diner became Lulu's, in honor of Jenna's daughter, Broadway style, with a giant fluorescent lit sign descending from the heavens.

The Waitress cast is strong all around and will be a treat for audiences across the country as the National Tour continues. Maiesha McQueen cast out some crowd-pleasing zingers making the most of her supporting role as Nurse Norma and Ryan G. Dunkin as Cal and Charity Angél Dawson as Becky were an unlikely couple in the story's plot twist. They fed off each other showcasing solid chemistry and memorable physical comedy chops while Bryan Fenkart as Dr. Pomatter had the audience in the palm of his hand kneading the quirky spoken dialogue with great aplomb landing some of the night's biggest laughs. Lenne Klingaman as Dawn and Jeremy Morse as Ogie were the crowd favorites, delighting the audience with their odd romance.

Jenny Cartney led the lively band which was heavily involved in the action, living in the space of the diner, travelling across the stage like Jenna's passing thoughts of new pie recipes, and impressively playing from memory at times. The strong ensemble's integration into the action created an environment of inclusivity which added to the theme of a shared human experience. This theme was poignantly highlighted as the women of the ensemble joined Jenna in choreographed labor pains.

The most important ingredient in every great recipe is love and it's not a secret element in the formula that made the hit musical, Waitress. She is rich with love in heaping scoops and I, for one, am ready for seconds.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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From This Author Zachary James

Zachary James, international opera singer and Broadway actor, created the role of Lurch in The Addams Family on Broadway, Hassinger in the Tony Award winning (read more...)

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