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BWW Review: WAITRESS Captures The Heart of Nashville During TPAC Run

BWW Review: WAITRESS Captures The Heart of Nashville During TPAC Run

There comes a moment late in act two of Waitress, the Jessie Nelson-Sara Bareilles musical now onstage at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall, when Desi Oakley - the actress portraying Jenna Hunterson, the show's very pregnant heroine - finds herself bathed in the bright glow of a spotlight and she delivers the show's stirring and emotionally driven climax: a performance of Bareilles' plaintive pop ballad "She Used to Be Mine," arguably the score's best-known and most beloved song.

Situated among the bevy of haunting melodies and spirited lyrics of Bareilles' score for the musical, which is based on the iconic Adrienne Shelly 2007 film of the same name, "She Used to Be Mine" gives the character of Jenna a way to express her growing frustrations and simmering insecurities about the life she leads as she anticipates the arrival of a baby whom she is determined to give a better life than the one she herself has led. The song is beautifully written, as one might expect from Bareilles, whose opus of earlier music is intensely personal and altogether heartfelt and affecting. But when performed by Oakley (and the women who have come before her in the role, including Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller), it becomes so much more - an anthem of determination and boundless optimism that is apparent even as Jenna sings of losing herself and, perhaps, the dreams that sustained her when she was younger.

BWW Review: WAITRESS Captures The Heart of Nashville During TPAC RunFor the audience, however, the number becomes so much more: As they have watched the story unfold on stage under the direction of Diane Paulus, winningly supported by Lorin Latarro's clever choreography that keeps the tale moving ever-forward, each member of the audience has been caught up in Jenna's highly personal story, falling more than a little in love with her with each passing moment and being caught up in the comedy and drama of her life that is so evocatively portrayed onstage. Oakley, whose gorgeous voice and easy command of the stage has engaged every audience member since her first notes of "Sugar...butter...flour," filled the darkened theater at the rise of curtain, pours her heart and soul in the performance of "She Used to Be Mine," packing an emotional wallop and ensuring that audiences will leave TPAC ruminating on how Jenna has managed to change her life in order to give her baby a bright and shining future.

It's a stunning moment in the show that superbly marries whimsy and drama in what is seemingly every scene played and every word uttered, and it not only shows off Oakley's estimable talents, but it also proves that a composer like Bareilles knows no bounds - she can compose music for the theater just as easily as she can write hits you're likely to hear (and make note of) on the radio or download on every device you have at your fingertips. It is, quite frankly, a moment that stops the show (the thunderous ovation that comes at the end covers the seamless change of scene that leads to Jenna giving birth) and melts the collective heart of every person sitting in the cavernous darkness of Jackson Hall.

I want to be taken back to that moment every day for the rest of my life, so that I might feel the rush of emotions and to empathize with a fictional character so richly drawn onstage that she seems real and genuine and so like every person in life whom I've ever loved.

Adrienne Shelly was murdered three months before her film treatment of Waitress premiered, so she unfortunately never experienced the ardor with which audiences have embraced the tale of Jenna, who toils in a diner/pie shop situated somewhere in "the American South" and who struggles to survive a marriage to a brutal and condescending boor of a husband who fails to realize her worth. But oh, what a glorious legacy Shelly has left to the world and now, with the success of the show (which is still running on Broadway and thrilling audiences in the provinces thanks to the touring production currently crisscrossing the U.S.) bringing new converts to the fold who leave every theater the show plays just a little bit in love with Jenna and her merry band of friends, family and coworkers who bring joy to her life simply by being a part of it.

BWW Review: WAITRESS Captures The Heart of Nashville During TPAC RunAs Jenna creates pies, inspired by visions of her mother who endured a tumultuous marriage to a drunken husband only to die far too soon, she pours her heart and soul into her own unique creative process, expressing her affections for those around her and baking every delicious morsel packed with love - a process that takes her away from the realities of life, which allows her spirits to soar and her long-held dreams to be acknowledged, however briefly. Book writer Jessie Nelson adapts Shelly's original screenplay with the deft blend of realism and fantasy, and thanks to Paulus' seamless direction and the aforementioned Latarro's stunning choreography the story unfolds in a cinematic fashion onstage, with each scene beautifully dovetailing into the next in such a way that the action never flags and the story never wanes.

Paulus injects the proceedings with a lighter-than-air consistency - not unlike a bowl filled with egg whites may be shipped into an ethereal and cloudlike meringue, its shapely swirls and curls lifting ever higher toward the heavens - yet she skillfully manages to retain a certain realism that keeps the story and the characters firmly grounded and accessible. Bareilles' lovely score for the musical is performed expertly by a six-member band that seems to glide easily onstage and off- with equal dexterity, sometimes becoming diner patrons and at other times backing the showier performances of the tremendously talented actors expressing themselves with showbiz-y theatrics.

Oakley's performance as Jenna is beautifully unfettered even as she uses every one of her awesome skills to bring the character to life. She effortlessly moves from one scene to the next, exuding confidence and commanding the stage with her immense presence, yet somehow she manages to capture the production's rather confectionary air while doing so. She is wonderfully paired with Brian Fenkart, who plays the neurotic yet thoroughly charming Dr. Pomatter (the gynegologist that Jenna falls into a torrid affair with - a relationship that burns so brightly at its start that there is no way it can be sustained), who likewise creates a portrayal that rivets your attention to him, yet remains hard-to-define and refreshingly unpredictable. The chemistry between Oakley and Fenkart (who played disc jockey Huey Calhoun in the national tour of Memphis the Musical that played TPAC several seasons back) is palpable and as sweet as any "Afternoon Delight Pie" you could imagine.

BWW Review: WAITRESS Captures The Heart of Nashville During TPAC RunAs Jenna's best friends and coworkers, Charity Angel Dawson and Lenne Klingaman (as Becky and Dawn, respectively) create memorable characters who more than hold their own during the two-and-a-half hours of Waitress. Dawson can electrify any moment onstage with her clever turn of phrase and easy command, while Klingaman likewise demands attention with a perfectly modulated characterization. The obvious respect and affection among Oakley, Dawson and Klingaman - coupled with the show's woman-led creative team - guarantees that Waitress epitomizes "woman power" throughout, serving as a hopeful harbinger of more female-driven productions coming down the theatrical turnpike as the future unfolds.

Larry Marshall plays Joe, the irascible owner of the eponymously named Joe's Pie Diner, with curmudgeonly glee and enormous grit which belies his character's heart of gold, while Nick Bailey plays the ultimate redneck as Jenna's dastardly husband Earl (who despite all his obvious faults looks damn good in his jeans and boots) and Ryan G. Dukin (as the diner's short order cook and manager) makes the most of every scene with his expert timing and delivery.

BWW Review: WAITRESS Captures The Heart of Nashville During TPAC RunBut it's Jeremy Morse, as Dawn's weird suitor - perhaps "stalker" would be a better turn of phrase - who pursues her zealously and arduously, who comes closest to stealing the show, demanding the spotlight and eliciting warm applause and generous laughter with his none-too-shabby performance. His character of Ogie is intriguingly written; what could be considered a stock comic figure becomes someone quite unlike you've ever met in musical theater and Morse plays him with a serious comic sensibility that's delightful.

The play's leading and secondary players are given strong support by the talented ensemble who become the various characters in Jenna's life, ranging from diner customers to hospital residents, with Maiesha McQueen's standout role as Nurse Norma standing out from among the pack.

Scott Pask's inventive set design transforms the expansive Jackson Hall stage into a fine-looking representation of a smalltown diner and easily morphs into the various locales around town. Ken Billington's lighting design exquisitely illuminates the play's action, while Suttirat Anne Larlarb's costumes clothe the character in pitch-perfect evocations of down-home fashion. Jonathan Dean's sound design was rather muddy during the show's first moments on opening night, with lyrics hard to understand, but it improved as the action continued.

Waitress. Book by Jessie Nelson. Music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles. Based upon the motion picture written by Adrienne Shelly. Directed by Diane Paulus. Choreography by Lorin Latarro. Presented at Andrew Jackson Hall, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Through Sunday, June 10. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission). For further details, go to www.TPAC.org.

photos by Joan Marcus

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