When the indie film Waitress was released in 2007, it cemented the reputation of Adrienne Shelly, the writer/director/actress in the quirky story about complicated relationships in a small Southern town, the glory of a well made pie, and a waitress who’s ambivalent about an unplanned pregnancy. When the movie was made into a musical in 2015, it established another astonishing female talent — Sarah Bareilles, who wrote the music and lyrics to the award winning show, and even performed the lead role periodically on Broadway.
With a non-traditional heroine, a host of flawed, funny, and eccentric supporting characters, and a compelling score that spans a wide gamut of musical styles, Bareilles has built on Shelly’s creation to produce a starkly original and refreshing show that bounces from serious to silly and back again in a haze of powdered sugar, eggs, chocolate and meringue. The cast of the first national tour, at Overture through July 29th, delivers the show with energy, precision and gorgeous singing.
In the first moments of the Broadway show, the audience hears a musical incantation to the magic of pie. Jenna, a server at a greasy spoon diner who puts her hopes, dreams, fears and frustrations into original recipes for delicious pastry, summons her powers by singing “Sugar, butter, flour,” in an ethereal voice. The curtain, featuring a lattice crust cherry pie pattern, rises and glass cases holding a dozen different varieties of freshly baked pies light up on the edges of the proscenium. From that moment, our protagonist’s journey is charted in baked goods: deep (shit) dish blueberry bacon pie; betrayed by my eggs pie; my husband’s a jerk chicken potpie; a little wild, wild berry pie; in the dark, dark chocolate pie. . .and for the most part, it is a delicious ride.
Desi Oakley plays Jenna with an understated, world-weariness. Trapped in a loveless and sometimes violent marriage, she has learned that the best defense against her husband’s possessive tirades is to play dead, and that comes across in Oakley’s often deadpan delivery. Jenna’s numbness turns to panic when she discovers she’s expecting, but the panic eventually turns to passion as she falls in love with her occasionally awkward but charming (and married) gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart). Oakley and Fenkart have terrific chemistry, dramatically and vocally, demonstrated in their duets “It Only Takes a Taste,” “Bad Idea,” and “You Matter to Me.” Fenkart ramps up the character’s self-conscious, fumbling, new-guy-in-town manner with a healthy dose of physical comedy that makes their trysts on the exam table even more ridiculous and delightful.
This affair and its eventual resolution are the real heart of the both the movie and the musical, and the story translates beautifully from screen to stage. But the rest of the plots and sub-plots that felt quiet and quaint on film have been made significantly bigger and broader for live audiences. The songs that support them are exceptional, but the subtlety that made the film so special is often overwhelmed.
For instance, when the shy and neurotic waitress Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) finds love with the aggressively nerdy internet date Ogie (Jeremy Morse), his persistence is way over the top. Both performers shine in their weirdness — a mini scene reflecting their love of Revolutionary War re-enactments is priceless — but their wedding anthem “I Love You Like a Table” pushes them both from cute to caricature.
Similarly, as the third part of the waitressing trio, the character of Becky is transformed from a brassy woman who’s been around the block, trying to find a way to be “happy enough” to a wise-cracking, avalanche of attitude, hurling insults at their boss Cal in standoffs that are accompanied by the music from old Westerns. It’s overkill, but Charity Angel Dawson not only pulls it off, she delivers an absolutely show-stopping number about the complexity of her own infidelity (“I Didn’t Plan It”) in Act 2 — a whole body anthem that earned her wild applause opening night. Meanwhile the gruff fry-cook Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin) has such drawn out, silly mannerisms added to his character, it feels like he’s begging for laughs he doesn’t deserve.
And as Jenna’s good-for-nothing husband Earl, Nick Bailey doesn’t stand a chance. A damaged and insecure character in the film, Earl is downgraded to a lump of ignorant misogyny in the musical; violent, controlling, and verbally abusive. Bailey’s fine singing voice fits nicely into his ’80s-esque anthem “You Will Still Be Mine,” but even the lyrics paint him as a monster.
Thanks to Bareilles, the music elevates the story where the exaggerated characters might have sunk it. Jenna’s heart-wrenching ballad “She Used to Be Mine” near the show’s end is gorgeously crafted and beautifully delivered by Oakley, who adds country-western slides and twang to the song about a woman in search of herself. And in an elegant symmetry, Waitress begins with a number about the drudgery of opening up the diner, where “most of the days look exactly the same,” but ends with an uplifting anthem, starting the day by celebrating change.
And be sure to look for two of Madison’s littlest local actors in the finale: Rosalie Manson and Addie Manthey alternate in walk-on roles as Lulu — the cute-as-a-button namesake of the reinvented, reinvigorated diner, and the inspiration for Jenna’s new life.