BWW Review: WAITRESS at The Orpheum
Since its 2015 premiere at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts - a popular laboratory for some of Broadway's most recent smash hits -Waitress, with music and lyrics by the indomitably popular songstress Sara Bareilles and a book by Jessie Nelson, has made defying the theater community's wildest expectations look easy as pie. Somewhat quietly, Waitress has baked a more than 1100 performance run (and counting) on Broadway, spanning nearly three years, no small feat for a modern musical, particularly one that does not rely upon spectacular stage effects, grandiose chorus numbers, a well-known jukebox catalog or Disney source material. Adapted from Adrienne Shelly's 2007 film of the same name - which was by no means a box office juggernaut - the musical incarnation of Waitress has none of these things. What it does have, however, is a fantastic score, relatable and likeable (with one exception) characters, and a well-mixed blend of humor and heart.
Accustomed to defying expectations, Waitress did it again last night at Memphis's Orpheum, bringing audience members, many of whom arrived with few preconceived notions about the show, to an immediate standing ovation in what was arguably the most surprisingly electric premiere of the 2018-2019 season. Perhaps this should not have been a surprise at all. The show is tailor made for the Memphis audience. Memphians know places like Joe's Pie Diner (where much of the action takes place) and they know these characters. The buzz at intermission and after the show was nothing short of ecstatic, as various versions of "I didn't know what to expect, but I absolutely loved the show" echoed throughout the lobby infused with the unmistakable scent of apple pie. (Yes folks, the lobby really does smell like apple pie.)
The story centers on Jenna (Christine Dwyer), a struggling young diner waitress in middle America. Stuck in a physically and emotionally abusive marriage to the deplorable Earl (Matt DeAngelis), Jenna finds salvation in conjuring up memories of her late mother by baking magically delicious pies, and in her friendship and camaraderie with her co-workers, including the sassy Becky (Maiesha McQueen), quirky Dawn (Jessie Shelton), and line cook Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), whose gruff veneer masks a soft heart within. Even dealing with curmudgeonly diner owner Joe (Richard Kline) provides Jenna with an ironic sense of escape from the pain of her private life, pain she hopes to flee by winning the top cash prize in a local pie baking contest. When Jenna unexpectedly becomes pregnant - a development she greets with more resignation than celebration - she meets Dr. Pomatter (Steven Good), an awkwardly charming, handsome (and married) gynecologist from the northeast. In each other, Jenna and Dr. Pomatter see something sorely lacking in their respective lives. That realization presents some obvious challenges, but they navigate them with humor, sweetness and depth.
Undergirding the stellar performances featured in Waitress, and perhaps the key ingredients of the show's success, are its score and book. The songs, with pleasant melodies that ride atop galloping, steady beats, are quintessentially Sara Bareilles, and there is not a stinker in the bunch. The lyrics "sugar, butter, flour" provide a recurrent theme to reflect Jenna's daydreams about her mother and best hopes for her future. Among many great songs, "A Soft Place to Land" is a particular standout and features some of the most beautiful harmonies you will hear in a show tune. Jessie Nelson's book is remarkably smart, and finely blends the comedy and drama. One line zingers are delivered by cast members with impeccable comedic timing.
As the eponymous protagonist Jenna, Ms. Dwyer is a consummately generous leading lady, carrying the show while giving her co-stars plenty of room to shine. Her characterization of Jenna is saltier and somewhat more exhaustedly cynical than the Jenna originated by Jessie Mueller on Broadway. Ms. Dwyer navigates the Bareilles score with aplomb, her emotive vocal tone evolving in tandem with her character. Her early numbers, including standouts "What's Inside," "Opening Up," and "What Baking Can Do" are pleasantly subdued. We see hints of edge in her Act I concluding duet with Dr. Pomatter, "Bad Idea." All is later unleashed in her 11 o'clock number "She Used to Be Mine," where her emotions are laid bare. Her performance is powerful, accessible and deeply moving.
As Becky and Dawn respectively, Ms. McQueen and Ms. Shelton are far more than the prototypical supporting sidekicks. Each gives a fully evolved performance that makes the audience as invested in their characters as it is in Jenna. The low end of Ms. McQueen's vocal range is off the hook, as is her comedic timing. In "I Didn't Plan It" (another production highlight), she commands attention, belting out powerful messages about how one's past struggles and mistakes shape who they are. Ms. Shelton's Dawn is adorably endearing, initially lacking in self-confidence, but nonetheless blossoming by the show's conclusion. Many audience members can no doubt relate to Dawn's struggles with online dating and hopes for romance, effectively conveyed through her 1950s-style number "When He Sees Me."
Of course the production's male cast members also hold their own. As Dr. Pomatter, Mr. Good is incredibly effective and moving, taking a character that could easily rest on the surface qualities of looks and charm, and imbuing him with complexity and a relatable inner conflict. When he sings "You Matter to Me" to Jenna (showcasing Mr. Good's strong tenor), he means it, no matter the exigencies of their circumstances. Mr. Good also finely executes his more comedic moments, particularly when he gets his first taste of Jenna's "Mermaid Marshmallow Pie."
The comedic standout, however, is Jeremy Morse as Dawn's Revolutionary War enactment adoring, love interest Ogie, perhaps one of the most original (and frankly bizarre) characters in the panoply of American musical theater. If there was a line Mr. Morse delivered that did not receive thunderous laughter, this reviewer did not hear it. His arrival injects a burst of energy into the later stages of Act I, and audience members simply cannot get enough of his clogging and unrestrained infatuation with Dawn. Although it of course was not, Mr. Morse succeeds in conveying the impression that the role must have been written for him. Throughout Act II, quiet whispers of "more Ogie!" could be heard throughout the orchestra.
Finally worthy of mention are Rheaume Crenshaw, who hilariously delivers one liners like no other as Nurse Norma, as well as local Memphian Katherine Thompson, who was specially cast to play Jenna's daughter Lulu in the show's Memphis run. She splits the role with fellow Memphian Elizabeth Ruby Kellett, and both young ladies are precious.
While nothing elaborate or ostentatious, the set design (including Joe's Pie Diner) appropriately embodies the baking theme, and includes a cherry pie backdrop and various pies laid out in display cases. As noted above, the theater lobby is infused with the scent of fresh apple pie, a deliciously welcome touch. Baking flour is a key prop, freely tossed around by cast members to magical, smoky effect (and likely to the chagrin of whomever has to sweep up after the show).
Ultimately, however, the true reasons to go see Waitress at the Orpheum, are its music, book and Great Performances - a trifecta for which it will be remembered as a true highlight of the 2018-2019 season at Memphis's storied venue.
Waitress runs through January 20, 2019 at the Orpheum, 203 South Main Street, Memphis, Tennessee.