By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
The national tour of Waitress, the Sara Bareilles musical that established her as a viable Broadway figure in 2016 (the year that Hamilton swept the Tony Awards), has finally made it to a local stage. Now running at the Saenger Theater through Sunday, the musical with a book by Jessie Nelson is based on the independent motion picture of the same title directed by the late Adrienne Shelly.
In this turbulent year of #metoo and the rise of women in the workplace, Waitress offers us a tasty dessert of strong women who find themselves looking for respect, equality and self-confidence in the workplace, the outside world and at home, places where men are far more adversarial than supportive.
The title reflects on the central character of Jenna, played enthusiastically by Desi Oakley, who like Bareilles is herself a singer-songwriter in real life. A Broadway veteran with a beautiful and clear voice, Oakley is quite believable as the skilled baker of pies, who also works as a waitress at a local diner. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Jenna finds herself pregnant and desperately trying to find a way out and a new life for herself and her soon-to-arrive baby.
She is joined at Joe’s Pie Diner by her co-workers Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) and Dawn (Lenne Klingaman), their manager/cook Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin) and the cantankerous owner Joe (Larry Marshall), who frequents the eatery every day.
In the ethereal opener,”What’s Inside,” Jenna’s prowess as a pie baker is established, but it is also a metaphor for what’s inside of her makeup as well as for the baby that will soon announce its arrival. In the bracing number that immediately follows – “Opening Up” – the Waitress Band and key players are introduced in a well-choreographed musical number that demonstrates Bareilles can write big and brassy music as well as her better-known soft and seductive pieces.
Jenna reveals she learned her baking skills from her now deceased mother in her solo “What Baking Can Do.” She rises above the mundane by baking pies of every description and size and comes up with clever, creative names to accompany her creations like Everything’s Just Peachy Peachy Keen Pie and A Little Wild Wild Berry Pie.
On the homefront, Jenna has to deal with her abusive and parasitic husband Earl (Nick Bailey), a man who browbeats her when he’s not busy stealing her tips or guzzling beer. The prospect of having him as the father of her child is enough to send her into the unsuspecting arms of her overworked and straitlaced obstetrician/gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart).
Fenkart nails the role of the nerdy physician, who at first is resistant to eating extra sugar, but who soon longs for Jenna’s pie, both literally and figuratively (“It Only Takes a Taste”). The sexual tension is finally broken in the Act One closing number, the aptly titled “Bad Idea.”
In the second act, Jenna and the good doctor express their love in the hauntingly beautiful “You Matter to Me,” which is set in the diner’s kitchen. As her pregnancy progresses, the action continues at the doctor’s office with Nurse Norma (Maiesha McQueen) becoming wise to their affair.
While Jenna is clearly the star, the action at the diner also revolves about Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) and Dawn (Lenne Klingaman). Becky has recently returned to town in order to best take care of an invalid husband, who is confined to a wheelchair. Dawson’s magnificent voice is best heard in the Act II opening number of “I Didn’t Plan It” in which she reproves Jenna for her objections to an unexpected dalliance with Cal. Klingaman has her turn when she expresses Dawn’s regret at finding Mr. Right in “When He Sees Me,” a discourse on the pitfalls of dating. Both Dawson and Klingaman provide many moments of hilarity with their performances opposite Oakley beginning with”The Negative,” which centers on the outcome of a home pregnancy test.
There is also a beautiful opportunity for the three waitresses to wax romantically and philosophically in “A Soft Place to Land,” set in the diner’s kitchen.
Broadway veteran Jeremy Morse reprises the Broadway role he played of Ogie, a Revolutionary War geek, who is literally head and heels over Dawn and prone to sudden outburst of poetry. He provides excellent comic relief in two numbers: “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” a lovestruck stalker’s anthem and “I Love You Like a Table” in which his silly similes turn a simple ceremony into a wacky wedding.
Marshall’s role as a curmudgeon owner allows him to take a turn on the dance floor with Jenna at the reception. In that moment he advises her to “Take It From an Old Man” and break free from the marriage that has depressed her and to seize the opportunity to let her pie-baking abilities lead her to a better life.
Jenna’s journey of discovery about herself grows as does her pregnancy. The denouement resolves itself in the darkness of the delivery room with the evocative and philosophical “She Used to Be Mine,” one of Bareilles’ best-known compositions that seems perfectly fit for the scene. As she is presented with her child for the first time, she finds an inner strength to cope with life and right her world.
In the end, Jenna and company find themselves in much the same place as the beginning, but as different people with a new perspective on their lives. Jenna’s love as an unselfish mother intent on protecting her young provides her with the impetus to bring positive change into her life, while Becky and Dawn find they also reap the benefit of finding someone.
Shelley’s film manuscript translates easily to the stage with Nelson’s book, although the key birthing scene is so sudden that it makes Jenna’s transformation seem relatively trite or arbitrary.
Shelley’s film handles it more effectively in her film, the independent film “Waitress.” The movie, one of the first to be written and directed by a female, was written as a love letter to her own daughter and released posthumously following her tragic murder. The independent film “Waitress” led to the formation of the Adrienne Shelley Foundation, which has generated dozens of grants for women filmmakers.
Like the film, the characters in Waitress are full of a messy kitchen of feelings. Bareilles’ music and the orchestrations she created with her Waitress Band are outstanding in making this a satisfying musical theatre experience. Directed by Diane Paulus, Waitress continues to perform well on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre with impressive choreography by Lorin Latarro. The tour proves this musical has legs and its simple staging by Scott Pask, its brilliant use of lighting by Ken Billington and its well-rounded sound design by Jonathan Dean clearly are all effective in putting this show on the road without losing much from its original staging.
Waitress continues its run at the Saenger Theatre, 1101 Canal Street, with shows tonight and Saturday at 8:00 and a 6:30 p.m. Sunday show. Matinees will be seen at 2:00 p.m. Saturday and at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday. For more information call 504-525-1025 or click here for tickets.