BWW Review: WAITRESS Bakes Up Slices of Life in a Pie Tin and Changes Lives in the Process
Can eating a pie be a religious experience? It can if it was made by Jenna, the diner waitress in the Broadway musical WAITRESS, who turns ordinary ingredients like butter, sugar, and flour into mouthwatering slices of life in a pie tin.
Her magical creations run the gamut from Deep (Shit) Dish Blueberry Bacon Pie and Mermaid Marshmallow Pie, to Lonely Chicago Pie and I Can't Have No Affair Because It's Wrong and I Don't Want Earl to Kill Me Pie. Each one encapsulates an incident ripped from the headlines of real life and together they create the backbone of this heartwarming story of female empowerment.
The musical was inspired by the 2007 indie film starring Keri Russell as Jenna, the pie baker stuck in an abusive marriage who finds the courage to reach for something better, along with Cheryl Hines and Adrienne Shelly (who also wrote and directed the film). It opened on Broadway in March of 2016, where it is still enjoying great success, and its national tour - a quietly radiant production - is now playing at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through August 26th. An Australian tour is planned for 2020. There's no denying this brand of sugar is a popular commodity.
The story mirrors that of the film and a great deal of the dialogue is incorporated into the stage adaptation by bookwriter Jessie Nelson, who has a gift for writing dialogue that actually sounds like the characters. Nelson retains the film's folksy charm but adds more comedy and a few new personal details with amusing payoffs.
For instance, Jenna's new gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart) is "off sugar" when he meets Jenna (Desi Oakley) during her first pre-natal visit, a character trait I don't think he had in the movie (or if he did it wasn't nearly this comical), but it fits his quirkier stage personality and sets up a clash between them from the start. He's no match for Jenna's baking, however, and one taste of her pie has him eating out of her hand...and forgetting about his sugar-free diet.
Of course, their attraction comes with complications. They're both married - he to a doctor doing her residency in Jenna's town, she to a disagreeable husband, Earl (Nick Bailey), whose obsessive behavior has choked the joy right out of her life. It isn't long before a secret romance begins.
The musical builds on the film's inherent eccentricities and delivers its message with warmth, honesty, and a heaping helping of heart. Much of its sensitivity can be attributed to pop songstress and storyteller Sarah Bareilles ("Love Song," "Brave") who wrote the score for the show. Her soulful sound and open-hearted lyrics are an alluring combination that helps create characters who sing what they think in individual musical styles that match their unique personalities.
Oakley, who plays Jenna, has a voice as sweet and rich as Bareilles herself and is the emotional center of the show. Jenna's journey from the resigned acceptance of a "happy enough" life to a renewed desire for real happiness is a heartfelt one and Oakley has the depth, likeability, and dry wit to make you want to come along with her. She is dubbed the "Queen of kindness and goodness" by her friend and fellow waitress, Dawn (Lenne Klingaman), a fitting title for the woman whose pie keeps bringing people together and Oakley wears it as comfortably as a second skin. Each of her songs is a knockout but her eleven o'clock number "She Used to Be Mine" is the best of the best. Oakley sings a lifetime into four and a half minutes that will alternately break your heart, lift you up, and echo your own inner longings.
Klingaman's Dawn is a socially awkward, self-deprecating single girl who Jenna and Becky (Charity Angél Dawson) finally convince to try online dating. Her five minute date is a bust but Ogie (a wacky, overly-caffeinated Jeremy Morse) knows they were meant for each other and shows up the next morning with flowers and a declaration of love.
Never has an actor earned a reprise with more panache than Morse does with his over-the-top "Never Ever Getting Rid of Me." Klingaman is hard-put to resist him when she finds out he has done even more Revolutionary War reenactments as Paul Revere than she has as Betsy Ross. Watching these two misfits fall in love on stage is geeky to the core and wonderfully sweet.
Dawson is also blessed with great pipes and a don't-mess-with-me attitude as Becky. She's an R&B belter who can grind out the high notes and throw a mean side eye with enough sass to check you when you least expect it. Becky is married (it's complicated) but is secretly carrying on with Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), the short order cook at the diner. When she sings "I Didn't Plan It" we see how life has thrown each of the characters in WAITRESS a curve and we come to understand that the true beauty of living is in how we manage its messiness.
Director Diane Paulus and choreographer Lorin Latarro work this idea into the fabric of the show. Scenes, and scenes within scenes, blend into each other like a dance as set pieces roll on and off (including the excellent band) in a flurry of coordinated motion. Impulses for movement come from the body itself, often like a heartbeat pulsing softly and sweetly from within. It's a very fluid style built on externalizing the internal that creates an exquisite expression of the complex emotions people don't reveal. To see it coordinated flawlessly is quite beautiful. In this ensemble, every single member is important to the overall effect and there are no loose threads among them.
Even Joe, the finicky owner of the diner has his own way of coping with life's endless annoyances. Larry Marshall captures the spirit of this gruff old curmudgeon who's secretly hiding a heart of gold, at least where Jenna is concerned. Maiesha McQueen (Nurse Norma) is memorable in her short stage time as the no-nonsense nurse who knows what's going on and is determined to get some pie of her own out of that knowledge.
Vocally, the show sounds terrific. Ryan Cantwell has finessed the material until its nuances shine through with an easy grace. Harmonies, particularly among the main trio of waitresses, are sublime, and will stand out to musicians who love the sound of voices shimmering when they resonate together.
So much ingenuity and heart has gone into the making of WAITRESS by its all-female creative team, a Broadway first but hopefully not the last, that you're bound to leave feeling a whole lot better than when you walked into the theater. That's worth it every time, in my book. And if pie-pop heaven is a thing, I'd say WAITRESS has taken us there and served up a slice of its finest counter goodness.
August 2 - 26, 2018
Hollywood Pantages Theatre
6233 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028
Photo credit: Joan Marcus