Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The title character is Jenna, a lovely and totally relatable heroine trapped in a marriage to a self-centered, abusive husband, Earl, and a dead-end job as a blue-uniformed waitress at Joe's Pie Diner, a Formica-countered, fluorescent-lit cafe on the edge of a small southern city. Two things get Jenna through each day. One is her love for baking. Jenna bakes all the pies served at Joe's, all 26 pies on their regular list plus a newly invented pie each day, giving them whimsical names that often reflect her own state of mind, and the results are always "to die for." Jenna truly comes alive when inventing her recipes and preparing her pies, a skill passed on to her by her mother.
The other that keeps Jenna going is her friendship with the two other waitresses at Joe's, Becky and Dawn. Becky's husband is an invalid whose diapers she must change three times a day. She attends to him with loving kindness, but her sharp tongue is always primed with a sassy comeback when Cal, the cook, complains that the three are talking, not working. To wit: "Cal, I love your hair. How do you get it to come out your nostrils like that?" She boosts Jenna's confidence and encourages her to take care of herself, no matter what that means. Dawn is meek and nerdy, a fan of historic reenactments (her specialty is Betsy Ross), and totally inexperienced at lovethough she is at work on an online dating profile. She admires Jenna's kindness and creativity, being the one person in Jenna's life who looks up to her.
Soon after the show's upbeat "Opening Up" comes the twist on which the story pivots: Jenna finds out she is pregnant, the result of making the bad decision one drunken night to sleep with her husband. She doesn't want to be with Earl, let alone have his baby, but she won't consider getting rid of it. Her OB-GYN is Dr. Pomatter, newly arrived in town because his wife is doing a medical residency there. There is instant chemistry between Jenna and her doctor, but neither of them are the type to have an affair. They are both married, she is pregnant, he is her doctor, and they agree that, as far as anything happening between them, "It's a Bad Idea." But the audience doesn't believe that, and neither do they.
There are other notable characters. Dawn finally completes her online profile and meets Ogie, a fellow nerd and re-enactor (Paul Revere) who is instantly smitten with her, provoking Dawn's horror when he declares she is "Never Ever Getting Rid of Me." Becky needs something other than changing her husband's Depends and sniping at Cal. Then there is Joe, the elderly businessman who owns the diner. He sees through Jenna's veil of getting along okay, and gently steers her toward a better life ("Take It from an Old Man"). Bookwriter Jessie Nelson stays very close to Shelly's original Waitress screenplay, both generous in creating not just a couple of leads, but a community of characters, fleshing them out with feelings, problems, and ways of making the audience laugh.
As noted above, Sara Bareilles' score is a tremendous gift to this show. Her songs drill down to characters' feelings and desires, without removing the individual quirks that make them specific and real. Dawn's song "When He Sees Me" unspools her insecurities about meeting a man, goofy and nerdy and totally adorable. "It Only Takes a Taste" offers Dr. Pomatter and Jenna a chance to use a pie she baked to deflect the mutual attraction they feel. Becky, Dawn and Jenna all admit to the foolishness of their dreams while holding out hope that a dream is "A Soft Place to Land." There is the tender confession of pure feeling in "You Matter to Me," a swell eleven o'clock number for Jenna, "She Used to Be Mine," and an upbeat conclusion that brings it all together with the realization that "Everything Changes." The onstage band, conducted by Jenny Cartney, plays the music with energy but also with feeling, not allowing volume to overwhelm the character's message, even in the 2,600 seat Orpheum.
Director Diane Paulus floats Waitress on a cloud of whimsy that allows for loopy mental vacations imagining pies that exact revenge, and the anguish of lost causes to claim legitimate stakes on Jenna's heart and mind. The fluid movement from scene to scene doesn't waste a second. Flexible scenic elements (designed by Scott Pask) and lighting (designed by Ken Billington) open and close like the petals of Jenna's heart. Paulus, by the way, had her work seen in Minneapolis just three weeks ago, as she also directed the Orpheum's last occupant, Finding Neverland. Of the two, her work in Waitress is far more accessible, aimed to make the characters' feelings as real as our own.
Desi Oakley plays Jenna, and she is flat out terrific. She has the voice, delivering a shattering "She Used to be Mine," the dramatic skills, and the comic flair to create a totally winning portrayal. The rest of the cast is right there with her: Charity Angel Dawson loveably tough and sassy as Becky; and Lenne Klingaman adorable as Dawn, both actors putting totally owning their solo numbers. These three actresses together make up a sisterhood, that, at the core, is more important than the relationships they have with any of the men, and their performances attest to this as a major theme that guides Waitress.
Bryan Fenkart is perfectly gawky as Dr. Pomatter, convincing us that, though his feelings toward Jenna mean betraying his wife, he is truly a decent man. Jeremy Morse steals the show as Ogie, the Paul Revere re-enactor who falls hard for Dawn, winning favor with song, dance, and comic delivery. Morse is completely in his element as Ogie. Nick Bailey seems the real deal as Earl, Jenna's abusive and manipulative husbands, with the emotional intelligence of a nine-year-old, who makes her promise not to love the baby more than she loves him. As Cal, Bryan Fenkart winningly depicts the tough-talking big guy whose soft heart is not too well hidden. Larry Marshall is a bit low key as Joe, punctuating his cantankerous old man persona with surprisingly ribald remarks.
Waitress opened in the same season as Hamilton. By that standard, Waitress is a small and modest show. But it is a good show, one with a warm-hearted story, quirky but likable (mostly) characters, abundant laugh lines, a tuneful and witty score. It is staged with imagination and played, on tour, by a cast that brings each character to life. It is well worth pulling up to the counter for a large slice of this sweet cream pie of a show.
Waitress runs through November 26, 2017, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $39.00 - $155.00. For ticket information call 800-982-2787 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.waitressthemusical.com/tour.php.
Book: Jessie Nelson, based on the motion picture written by Adrienne Shelly; Music and Lyrics: Sara Bareilles; Director: Diane Paulus; Choreography: Lorin Latarro; Orchestrations: Sara Bareilles and the Waitress Band; Music Supervision and Arrangements: Nadia DiGiallonardo; Scenic Design: Scott Pask; Costume Design: Suttirat Anne Larlarb; Lighting Design: Ken Billington; Sound Design: Jonathan Deans; Wig and Makeup Design: Richard Mawbey; Music Coordinator: John Miller; Casting: Telsey + Company, Patrick Goodwin, C.S.A; Production Stage Manager: Jovon E. Shuck; Conductor: Jenny Cartney; Associate Director: Nancy Harrington; Associate Choreographer: Abbey O'Brien, Executive Producer: Alecia Parker.
Cast: Prewitt Anderson * (Lulu), Estela Antivilo * (Lulu), Nick Bailey (Earl), Charity Angel Dawson (Becky), Ryan G. Dunkin (Cal), Bryan Fenkart (Dr. Pomatter), Jim Hogan (Father), Kyra Kennedy (Francine), Lenne Klingaman (Dawn), Maiesha McQueen (Nurse Norman), Larry Marshall (Joe), Jeremy Morse (Ogie), Desi Oakley (Jenna), Grace Stockdale (Mother). Kyra Kennedy, Maiesha McQueen, Gerianne Pérez, Grace Stockdale.