Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Just like baking a pie, the creation of a new musical requires all the right ingredients to be a success. Waitress, whose touring production is currently playing at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, contains the right mix of likeable songs, an intriguing story, superb performances, and solid direction and design to be a tasty treat for theatergoers.
Based on the 2007 film of the same name by Adrienne Shelly, Waitress tells the story of a Jenna, a pie baker and waitress, who's stuck in an unhappy marriage to her good-for-nothin' husband Earl. She unexpectedly becomes pregnant, which leaves her shocked. With the help of her friends at the diner, she tries to find happiness and direction, all while cooking up an affair with her gynecologist.
Waitress boasts a peppy score by pop singer and Grammy winner Sara Bareilles. The songs are musically a good fit, with memorable melodies appropriate to the emotions of the characters. The lyrics often create unique imagery and provide insight into the denizens of the small town setting. The songs don't always conform to the true rhymes usually expected of musical theater ("She Used to Be Mine" is a good example), and tend to comment on the story rather than advance it, but they're all tuneful and serve the show well. "Opening Up," "When He Sees Me" (which really sounds like a Bareilles song you might hear on the radio), and "Bad Idea," a duet for Jenna and her doctor, are some of the score's highlights. Many songs also feature some lovely harmony sections which are a delight to hear.
The book by Jessie Nelson deftly adapts the original screenplay. With intriguing plot twists, adult situations, layered emotional ups and downs, hilarious comedy, sufficient dramatic tension, and a few surprises, it's a story which keeps its audience engaged and invested.
The tour cast is first rate. Desi Oakley brings an air of authenticity and flair to the lead role, and conveys the trapped, distant and melancholy emotions of a mistreated wife with few options. She also shines when singing a good portion of the pop-infused score. Charity Angel Dawson (Becky) and Lenne Klingaman (Dawn) provide wonderful support as Jenna's waitress pals. Ms. Dawson gets lots of laughs with her many quite funny one-liners, and suitably exudes sass and passion in her performance. Ms. Klingaman is great as the timid, nerdy, "adorkable" friend, and both women are fine vocalists.
As Dr. Pomatter, Bryan Fenkart has the uncomfortable fish-out-of-water vibe perfected, and plays off of Ms. Oakley well in their scenes. Jeremy Morse mines comic gold as Ogie, Dawn's love interest, and he delivers on one of the musical's most memorable numbers. Praiseworthy support is also provided by Broadway vet Larry Marshall (diner owner Joe), Nick Bailey (the loathable husband Earl), Ryan G. Dunkin (diner cook Cal), and the talented and versatile ensemble.
Director Diane Paulus supplies a tender touch which is befits the material, as well as many noteworthy staging choices, both bold and subtle, throughout. The choreography by Lorin Latarro, performed mostly by the ensemble, feels a bit inorganic at times, but has a modern, ethereal feel which fits the story. A talented on-stage, six-piece band is led by Jenny Cartney.
Broadway scenic designer Scott Pask provides a varied and functional set with many modular pieces. Cincinnati-based prop designer Kat Miller created many of the non-edible pies on stage, all of which look delicious and real. The lighting by Ken Billington is professionally rendered, as usual, and includes a subtle yet wonderful effect of the shadows of curtainless blinds befitting the lower-economic status of Jenna and Earl's home. The costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlarb look accurate, though it would be nice to have the diner guests not wear the same clothes day after day.
Waitress is a tale with surprisingly deep themes and emotions, and the storytelling and songs do the source material justice in this musical adaptation. The talented cast and creators present a musical worth seeing, just as Jenna's pies are worth tasting at the diner! And, for theatergoers who get a hunger for pie from all of the "pie-talk," they are selling mini-pies in the lobby as they do on Broadway.
Waitress continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through January 21, 2018. For information and tickets, visit www.cincinnatiarts.org/aronoff-center or call 800-294-1816 for ticket information. For more information on the tour, visit waitressthemusical.com.