Waitress * Book by Jessie Nelson * Music and Lyrics by Sara Bareilles * Directed by Diane Paulus * First National Tour at the Buell Theatre, DCPA, 12/19&20/17
Waitress is one of my favorite shows of all time. I’m telling you this up front because there’s no way that this can be an unbiased review. A company would have to butcher the show very badly for me not to enjoy it. Thankfully, the first national touring company, who began this tour in Cleveland, Ohio in October, are excellent across the board, so no worries.
Waitress is the story of a young diner waitress and master pie baker named Jenna (Desi Oakley), who discovers that she’s pregnant by her abusive husband, Earl (Nick Bailey). Her best friends and coworkers, Becky (Charity Angél Dawson) and Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) rally around her while also coping with their own romantic issues. As her pregnancy continues, Jenna becomes closer to her doctor, Dr Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart) and the diner’s elderly owner, Joe (Larry Marshall). The diner’s cook and manager, Cal (Ryan G Dunkin), provides a curmudgeonly foil to the ladies, while Ogie (Jeremy Morse), Dawn’s 5 minute date, brings some lightness to the diner.
This show made Broadway history by being the first to feature an all female creative team. The book was written by Jessie Nelson, and the music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles. It was directed by Diane Paulus and choreographed by Lorin Latarro. In addition, the costumes were designed by Suttirat Anne Larlarb and the music was arranged by Nadia DiGiallonardo. Waitress was nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score for Sara Bareilles. It unfortunately didn’t win any, since it was competing against Hamilton, which virtually swept the awards that year.
The national tour production is very similar to the Broadway production, with only a few minor tweaks. One small change that I missed was not being greeted by the smell of baking pies when entering the lobby before the show. The opening stop of the tour recreated this Broadway delight, so I’m not sure what happened in Denver, but it would have added a homey touch to the ultramodern architecture of the Buell Theatre. Maybe the fire marshal doesn’t like pie.
From the opening refrain of “Sugar. Sugar, butter, flour,” to the last, the pies are the central metaphor and form of commentary for the show. Jenna gives her pies whimsical names that express her state of mind, like Betrayed by My Eggs Pie. She often adds exotic ingredients, such as a touch of passionfruit, or the sparkly red dress that led to her pregnancy.
The role of Jenna requires an actor who can play the master pie baker who gets lost in her head creating new recipes, the abused wife, and the snappy, down to earth diner waitress, because, like most women, Jenna juggles all three roles every day, and soon adds the role of reluctant mother-to-be.
Desi Oakley is more than up to the task. She excels when playing Jenna’s whimsical and playful sides, such as bantering with her costars and singing “Bad Idea”, a comedic duet with Dr Pomatter about their relationship. But she’s also heartbreaking when singing “She Used to Be Mine”, the showpiece song for Jenna’s struggles and doubts. Oakley adds unique touches to the role and her vocals, making this Jenna her own character.
Charity Angél Dawson has been with Waitress since its preBroadway production in Cambridge, MA, and originated the role of Dr Pomatter’s tolerant Nurse Norma. She also played Becky on Broadway, as she does here, with gusto and a world-weariness that she seeks to overcome during the course of the show. Dawson takes no prisoners, and her rendition of “I Didn’t Plan It” in Act 2 is a show stopper.
Lenne Klingaman, as Dawn, is the ingenue of the trio. Klingaman gives Dawn a series of odd quirks combined with open-hearted warmth. Dawn speaks for geeky girls everywhere when she sings “When He Sees Me”, about wanting to find someone who’ll accept her as she is, but also being afraid to show new people who she really is. Klingaman brings an adorable energy to the upbeat song and choreography, and to the rest of Dawn’s unusual courtship with Ogie.
Ogie pursues Dawn despite her uncertainty. Jeremy Morse brings certainty enough for both of them to the role of the tax auditor who’s more interesting than you would expect. Morse originated the role of Ogie during the Cambridge run, then acted as understudy to Christopher Fitzgerald on Broadway. I loved his Ogie preBroadway, so it was exciting to see him back in the role. He practically quivers with love and enthusiasm, making him the biggest scene stealer in the show.
Bryan Fenkhart is a classic romantic comedy leading man in the style of Dick Van Dyke, sharing his quick wit and long, rubbery limbs that are perfect for the physical comedy the role requires, especially during the duet “Bad Idea”, when Jenna and Dr Pomatter move around the doctor’s examining table, practically doing contortions at times. He also nails the tender, delicate vocals and physicality required during “You Matter to Me”, when Pomatter quietly supports Jenna through a rough day.
Larry Marshall, as Joe, the diner’s owner and a frequent customer, sells his crusty, hard-earned brand of fatherly wisdom with a bawdy edge. His version of “Take It from an Old Man” is lovely, given extra depth by the richness of his voice. Ryan G Dunkin, as Cal, embodies every dude-bro who was a decent person that I’ve ever known. It’s uncanny and made me want to give him a hug.
Nick Bailey, as Earl, Jenna’s husband, reminded me of every guy from high school that I want to forget. Even his song, “You Will Still Be Mine”, is stylistically very different from the rest of the score, grungy commercial rock instead of indie pop singer-songwriter fare. Bailey pulled off playing selfish to the point of being violent in a way that made me want to retaliate against him, and all of the other jerks like him. Thank goodness Jenna gets her revenge in the end, as in, the best revenge is living well.
The sets for the tour (by Scott Pask), like the Broadway version, are broken into small pieces that move on and off stage as needed, some doing double duty. Sometimes a character rides a set piece off stage, at one memorable point while eating a fluffy pie.
Try to read the blackboard over Cal’s window to the grill if you see the show. The pie names listed there are hilarious, and at least some are inside jokes (we sometimes bring small binoculars so that we can catch details).
The six piece band is right out on stage for the show, similar to the way the musical Once is staged. They occasionally take part in the action in small ways. Four of the band members are women, including the conductor, and two are men, continuing the emphasis on a female-oriented creative team. It was great to see, since show bands usually follow the Smurfette principal, at best, when they are small pop bands.
Sara Bareilles score is a delight. It’s a modern, accessible style, similar to her solo recordings, but venturing into other realms when it makes sense. The songs range from humorous to angry to poignant to joyful, and the artists in the touring company do them all justice. She uses callbacks and reprises throughout the show very effectively, which breed a sense of familiarity and home, perfect for a show which explores the concepts of home, family and commitment.
By the end of the Waitress, the audience is able to sing along during the curtain call and feel like regulars at the Pie Diner. That’s a very good place to be.