By Colin Douglas
This haunting, almost ethereal, refrain, crooned at the top of the musical Waitress, and often throughout the production, is the comforting mantra Jenna uses to inspire her baking and to retreat to her happy place.
That place is the warm kitchen where she recalls, as a child, enjoying the loving company of her late mother. There Jenna’s mom gently protected her daughter from her abusive father, while teaching the youngster a love for creative baking. Like her mother, Jenna, too, is stuck in an unhappy, abusive marriage. Trapped in a small, southern town with her violent husband, Earl, Jenna has lost any hope for a happy life.
But, unexpectedly, a shining beacon of light soon offers Jenna a chance for some joy. Jenna is a gifted waitress and talented pie chef at Joe’s Pie Diner, known for her kindness and her delicious and unusually named confections. Jenna’s only friends are her two fellow waitresses, Becky and Dawn. Her boss, Cal, is an obnoxious, former hippie who manages the diner, an establishment in which the owner, curmudgeonly old Joe, is a regular customer. Joe enjoys talking with Jenna and refuses to be waited on by anyone else. Becky is a passionate middle-aged woman who cares for her sickly, bedridden husband; and Dawn is a nerdy, naive younger woman who toys with the idea of looking for Mr. Right through online dating.
Jenna discovers that she’s unexpectedly become pregnant, although the thought of bringing a child into such an abusive relationship is unthinkable. When she visits her clinic, Jenna’s surprised to find that her longtime family physician has retired. In her place Jenna finds a dorky, but very likable young OB/GYN named Jim Pomatter.
Before Jenna knows what’s happening, she and Dr. Pomatter have fallen passionately for each other and have begun carrying on an illicit affair. Additionally, Jenna has learned that there’s going to be a local pie-baking contest, whose grand prize could financially allow Jenna to become independent enough to leave her husband and open up her own pie shop.
One of the jewels of the 2016 Broadway season, Waitress is a beautifully uplifting and cathartic musical is adapted from the popular 2007 film that starred Keri Russell. What makes this show especially enjoyable is the resplendent, often poetic lyrics and music by Sara Bareilles. The score is so beautiful and haunting, yet sometimes humorous. The songs frequently touch hidden emotions that theatergoers may have buried deep inside. The late Adrienne Shelly’s film screenplay has been faithfully adapted for the stage by Jessie Nelson and makes each character unique.
Both the original Broadway production and this national tour are directed with sensitivity and great playfulness by the incomparable Diane Paulus (Pippin, Finding Neverland). The show also features Lorin Latarro’s exciting, expressive choreography that’s not so much dance as emotionally charged, synchronized, choral movement. A talented four-member onstage band seamlessly blends in with the acting ensemble and is led by pianist/conductor Jenny Cartney. Often the actors provide additional, cleverly arranged percussive accompaniment as well. Scott Pask’s fluid scenic design effectively evokes small town life, both inside the diner, at Doctor Pomatter’s modest examination room and within Jenna and Earl’s humble living room. Costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlarb are complemented by Richard Mawbey’s spot-on wig, hair and makeup designs.
While local audiences miss Tony Award-winning Chicago actress Jessie Mueller in the lead role, theatergoers are be treated to the magnificent work of Desi Oakley in the role of Jenna. This arresting young actress, whose Broadway performances have been enjoyed in shows like Wicked and Les Miserables, is lovely and charismatic, possessing a clear, powerful singing voice that’s especially well-suited for Bareilles’s music. Oakley’s heartfelt rendition of the show’s power ballad, “She Used to Be Mine,” is the highlight of evening. The actress delivers an honest, heartrending portrayal of an everyday young woman who conceptualizes her world through the inventive creation of pies.
Oakley is matched by a gifted, thoughtfully-cast company of supporting actors. Charity Angel Dawson, who’s been with the creation of this show since the beginning, is excellent as the sassy and sexy waitress Becky. A comic standout in every number, Dawson especially owns the stage in her Act Two opening number, “I Didn’t Plan It.” As Dawn, the lovably mousy younger waitress who eventually finds love through social media, Lenne Klingaman is terrific. A natural born comedian, Klingaman is especially hilarious in her show-stopping number, “When He Sees Me.”
She’s beautifully matched with another pioneer from the musical’s beginnings, Jeremy Morse. This skilled comic actor almost steals the show as Ogie, Dawn’s frenetic blind date who composes poetry on the spot, is an Irish clog dancer and enjoys, like Dawn, participating in American Revolutionary War reenactments. Morse’s gut-busting numbers include “You’ll Never Get Rid of Me” and “I Love You Like a Table.”
While it’s the women who dominate this musical, the supporting men are all excellently portrayed in this production. Dr. Jim Pomatter, played by Bryan Fenkart, is superb. He’s a likable, goofy, easy-going and often tongue-tied young man who provides much of the play’s comic moments. He’s easily charmed by and smitten with Jenna, his pretty new patient.
As Jenna’s moody, temperamental and immature husband, Earl, Broadway actor Nick Bailey creates just the right amount of depravity. To avoid making him a one-note villain, Bailey shares a touching ballad with Oakley called “You Will Still Be Mine.” Cal, the manager and head chef of the diner, is played with broad humor by Ryan G. Dunkin; and Broadway veteran, and Jeff Award-winning actor Larry Marshall is comically endearing as Joe, the crusty, quarrelsome elderly owner of Joe’s Pie Diner. His onstage relationship with Oakley is both affectionate and funny.
The show’s talented ensemble, which features, among others, the hilarious Maiesha McQueen as Nurse Norma, as well as two of Chicago’s favorites, Skylar Adams and Donterrio Johnson, both deftly support the cast and the onstage band with their artistry.
Bareilles’ Tony nominated musical, based upon the beloved film of the same name, is both humorous and heartbreaking. It features an unforgettable score that bathes audiences in warm memories, gentle plot twists and unexpected moments of humor. Featuring a stellar cast, a fantastic onstage band and directed by Broadway legend, this confection of a musical is as satisfying as one of Jenna’s creative pies, made from sugar…butter…and flour…and baked with lots of love.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Waitress” through July 22 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.