BWW Review: WAITRESS at Tulsa Performing Arts Center
When Waitress opened in 2016, it made history as the first musical on Broadway to have women in all four principal positions on the show's creative team. The national tour of Waitress, which is running in Tulsa through this weekend at the PAC, is powered by a vibrant female energy, but it is also packed with moments of joy and humor for pie-lovers of all genders. Waitress combines a refreshingly contemporary but accessible score (by pop songwriter extraordinaire and Broadway novice Sara Bareilles) with classic musical theatre influences, both in terms of sound and storytelling.
Waitress doesn't try too hard to be cutting-edge or inventive like many recent new musicals, but it manages to be a little of both by embracing typical Broadway tropes but allowing female relationships to take center stage. While Bareilles' music is warm and invigorating, the book and arc of the story itself is carried by the performers: a team of three leading ladies with the stunning Christine Dwyer at the helm as Jenna, an expertly inexpert Dr. Pomatter played by the magnetic Steven Good, and a vocally sensational and intermittently hilarious supporting cast.
Waitress is based on the 2007 movie of the same name by Adrienne Shelly. Like the movie, the show tells the story of Jenna, who works at a small-town diner and has a passion for purging her anxieties through pie-making. She is trapped in a miserable marriage to her childhood sweetheart-turned-chauvinist, Earl, and the show begins with the discovery that she is pregnant with his baby. Her only support system consists of her coworkers at the diner, Becky and Dawn, who each are struggling with their own relationship woes - that is, until she meets the clumsily charming Dr. Pomatter, her new OB-GYN. He falls for her pies, and they begin an affair.
The endearing absurdity of this arrangement works well because of incredible performances from Dwyer and Good, who manage to find the authenticity in their playful dessert-centric romance and trysts. Their duets, "It Only Takes a Taste", "Bad Idea", and "You Matter to Me" (and of course, their pie-based musical sex scene) are some of the best moments of the show. Dwyer and Good have chemistry that manages to feel fine-tuned and fresh at the same time, and their perfectly calibrated, soaring harmonies would give a bag of flour chills. But Waitress is not a simple love story: it's about Jenna's transition from being a reluctant participant in a life that is no longer emotionally tenable to a new identity as a mom and creator of delicious desserts.
Love comes in many forms in Waitress. The show honors each love affair in different ways, from the utter ridiculousness of Ogie and Dawn's whirlwind romance to the humor and pain of Becky and Cal's unexpected fling to the passionate bond that Jenna feels with her friends and ultimately, her daughter. Becky, played by Maiesha McQueen, caused jaws to drop in admiration across the entire theatre with her powerful Act 2 opener, "I Didn't Plan It". Ephie Aardema as Dawn provided a study in musical storytelling with her performance of "When He Sees Me". Ogie, played by the jovial Jeremy Morse, had audiences positively bellowing with laughter with his profession of love for Dawn in "Never Ever Getting Rid of Me".
In a gratifying reversal, the male supporting characters in Waitress were much more caricature-esque than the female roles. Unfortunately, the writers of Waitress passed up an important opportunity when they chose to retain the cartoonish quality of Earl's onscreen counterpart instead of crafting him into a more nuanced character. Jeremy Woodard did a formidable job of encapsulating his monstrous role, but Jenna's choice at the end of the show would have been much more powerful if Earl had been a little bit more complex than the outrageously misogynistic and shockingly un-self-aware character in the show.
It's hard to see Waitress and not fall in love with Christine Dwyer's Jenna. Dwyer depicted her character's bluntness and vulnerability with grace, and her performance of "She Used to Be Mine" was flawless and it was an incredible privilege to see it live. She was able to adapt brilliantly to the show's demand for a pop-styled Broadway belter, and her voice embraced the show's subtle country/blues/gospel sound (slightly reminiscent of the music of Jeanine Tesori or Tom Kitt). The ensemble and on stage band were also crucial parts of the recipe for Jenna: they provided the pulsing life behind her mini-soliloquies and added an almost ethereal dimension to the role.
It's difficult to limit dessert puns when writing about Waitress - but just as a pie doesn't need to be perfect to be well-worth savoring to the last bite, Waitress is a beautifully imperfect treat, full of sweetness and a cast that you absolutely don't want to miss while they're in town. The cherry on top: the character of Lulu, Jenna's daughter, is recast in every city, so some adorable little Tulsans have a cameo in the final scene! Get your tickets to Waitress, presented by Celebrity Attractions, playing now at the Tulsa PAC.