Regional Reviews: Chicago
There's a line in the musical Waitress in which waitress/pie baker Jenna mentions how sometimes ingredients one wouldn't expect to go together actually work to create something tasty. Like broad, sometimes physical comedy alongside a story of spousal abuse? Based on its two-plus year run on Broadway, where it's still going strong, and the audience reaction at the tour's opening in Chicago, one would have to conclude those two go together for many people, if not for this reviewer. While the 2007 film seemed to walk a line between comedy and the underlying darkness of a talented woman who married the wrong guy, the musical version directed by Diane Paulus dives head first into the comedy even as it delivers the emotional stakes of waitress Jenna's life with compassion and honesty.
Much of the credit for keeping the heart in this piece goes to the star-quality performance by Desi Oakley as Jenna. A performer who's paid her dues on Broadway and national tours in ensembles and as an understudy, Oakley nails all the contradictions in her character. She shows us Jenna's intelligence, warm heart and insecuritiesa young woman who has inner strength and values but is in no way invulnerable. Oakley lands the comic demands of the role as well. She's a versatile singersinging sweetly and softly when required but able to deliver a comic number like "Bad Idea" and bring us to tears with her 11 o'clock power ballad "She Used to Be Mine." Oakley's the real deal and could certainly open a Broadway show.
Oakley's comic moments are mostly in the scenes she shares with Jenna's paramour, the youngish obstetrician who comes to town and tends to her unplanned pregnancy. Holding her own with her partner in those scenes is no small feat. That partner is Bryan Fenkart, a comic actor of considerable skill, who audiences may remember fondly from his leading role of Huey in the national tour of Memphis. As Dr. Pomatter, a character Paulus has made to be goofier than his film counterpart, Fenkart shows gymnastic skill in all sorts of physical business on the doctor's examining table and various other pieces of furniture.
As the secondary couple, Jenna's shy co-worker Dawn and her nerdy boyfriend Ogie, Lenne Klingaman and Jeremy Morse execute Paulus's broad comedy fearlessly. Even in the midst of such broad buffoonery, Klingaman creates a pretty lovable character. Drier and sassier humor is smartly delivered by Charity Angel Dawson as waitress Becky and Ryan G. Dunkin as the diner manager Cal. In the smaller role of Nurse Norma, Maiesha McQueen earns big laughs with every line and every reaction. She's a gem in this uniformly strong cast. And Chicago's Larry Marshall is absolutely lovable as the crusty Joe, owner of the diner.
Then there's the case of Nick Bailey as Jenna's husband Earl. Bailey is frighteningly good in a role that would be so easy to get wrong. Jessie Nelson's book, except for one scene late in the musical, makes him wholly unsympathetic. The shortcut would be to play him as a cardboard villainand given the superficiality and easy laughs of Paulus's take on Ogie, that wouldn't be surprising. But Bailey makes the guy believably scaryyou almost fear for Oakley as Jenna onstage in their scenes together. Credit is due to Oakley again for her reactions.
And this brings us back to the conflicting tones of the piece. When we're in the diner or the doctor's office, we're having a good time with a broadly comic show. Then Bailey as Early comes on stage and we're brought back to a disturbing reality of this young woman trapped in an abusive marriage. Thinking of Joe's OCD demands that certain foods of his meals be placed on separate plates, it's as if Paulus has put her comedy and her drama on separate plates on the same table. They exist in the same show, but don't really mix.
This piece might have been done with a better balance of the comedy and drama closer to that of the film. The book provides such a balance, as do Sara Bareilles's beautiful and often funny songssubversive in the way they bring a contemporary pop sensibility to the Broadway stage and are satisfyingly backed up by a six-piece onstage band. It remains a satisfying tale of female empowerment that should resonate for anyone stuck in the wrong place.
Waitress, through July 22, 2018, at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago IL. For tickets or more information visit www.broadwayinchicago.com or call 800-775-2000. For more information on the tour, visit waitressthemusical.com/tour.