BWW Review: WAITRESS Serves Up the Power of Pie & What's Inside at Milwaukee's Marcus Center
I've been a Waitress fangirl ever since my first listen to the Sara Bareilles concept album in 2015. With beautiful melodies, meaningful words, catchy little numbers, and an overall uplifting zeal, it was easy to get hooked. So hooked, in fact, I almost immediately hopped on Amazon and ordered Adrienne Shelly's beloved film by the same name.
Shelly's Waitress, which inspired the stage show, tells the story of Jenna - a small-town diner waitress who winds up pregnant in a loveless marriage. Jenna dreams of a fresh start and takes daily solace in the magic of baking, pouring all of her hopes and fears into the scrumptious pies she invents. With an adorable new baby doctor in town and a pie contest (with a pretty sum of prize money) in a nearby county, that fresh start could be just around the bend. In the meantime, Jenna's got her fellow waitresses, Becky and Dawn, to lean on and laugh with.
In the musical, the Bareilles-penned score really drives home the girl power. Given the composer's own remarkable range as a vocalist, it's no wonder her music and lyrics mirror that range - so it's also no wonder that finding top female talent is a must. I'm thrilled to report that this touring cast has nailed it in that department. As Jenna, Desi Oakley's clear, sweet voice is utterly transcendent. Did my jaw ever leave the floor? You couldn't ask for a better lead.
Rounding out the female cast is Charity Angel Dawson as the sassy, soulful Becky, and Lenne Klingaman as the hilariously quirky Dawn. The two ladies more than hold their own; both Dawson and Klingaman ace the delivery of their respective spotlight songs, "I Didn't Plan It" and "When He Sees Me." While some of the humor of the show feels a bit hard to read if you're stuck sitting outside of Prime Orchestra (shifty-eyed awkward pauses, playful stare-downs - the kinds of actions better seen on screen than a big stage), Klingaman's physical comedy brings delightful, larger-than-life laughs to Waitress.
But the most laughs actually went to Jeremy Morse as Ogie, Dawn's seriously smitten speed-date-on-the-cusp-of-stalker. My only regret is that this laugh-out-loud breath of fresh air doesn't enter the story until the end of the Act One. One could argue that more of Ogie could be too much - but I think a dash more, earlier on, would do the trick. His big song, "Never Getting Rid of Me," left the audience grinning from ear to ear with uproarious applause.
Then there are a handful of other supporting fellas in the cast: Nick Bailey as Jenna's good-for-nothing husband, Larry Marshall as the curmudgeonly diner owner, Ryan G. Dunkin as the no-nonsense diner cook Cal (who gets his share of laughs), and Bryan Fenkart as the goofy-cute Dr. Pomatter.
While the doctor's gawky vibe is endearing throughout most of the show (shout out to "It Only Takes A Taste" and "Bad Idea"), it makes the heart-fluttering duet "You Matter To Me" feel a little bit out of left field. For me, had the good doctor displayed a pinch of charm through the goofiness, the song might hold as much meaning on stage as it does while listening at home.
That's my one struggle with Waitress. The songs themselves have moved me so much in these past couple of years of listening, my expectations were exceedingly high on Milwaukee's opening night. I'll happily reiterate that this touring cast would undoubtedly make Sara Bareilles proud. From the leads to the charming chorus, they nailed every number, and Desi Oakley quickly brought me to tears during the show-stopping "She Used To Be Mine."But parts of Waitress left me feeling like there's some ingredient missing. The aforementioned nuanced humor and quiet moments between Jenna and Dr. Pomatter, which may move you on screen, are instead punctuated by an auditorium full of coughing theatergoers and some whirring noise at the Marcus Center (was it the heating system?) befuddling the senses. Instead of laughing at the sometimes-subtle one-liners or getting lost in certain would-be sweet moments, I just found myself feeling a little lost.
Still, it all comes together in the end, and the moments that soar greatly outweigh any that fell a little flat. Waitress is an uplifting, joyful experience - and not just for its message of hope, passion, the love of friendship, the magic of pie, and digging deep to find what you're made of. It's also uplifting in that it boasts an entirely female creative team - the first on Broadway of its kind.
How very empowering in today's world that there exists this artful testament to womanhood and motherhood. A show made by women, for women. For me, that alone kicks up emotion, right in the pit of my stomach. Waitress is indeed a triumph, and the hope of it speaking to women everywhere - encouraging fortitude, shining a light on female friendships, and pushing us all to be brave enough to stand up to our enemies in the pursuit of happiness - it's incredibly moving, and leaves me hungry for more.