Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Like the film, the plot of Waitress focuses on Jenna, a woman in a small town with a controlling, demanding and somewhat abusive husband who finds her life at a crossroads when she learns that she is pregnant. Jenna is also a waitress and baker who crafts delicious pies from a mixture of ingredients that at first don't seem to go together and finds solace and guidance for the decisions she has to make in her life from the close friendships she has with her two fellow waitresses at the diner and the warm developing relationship she shares with her married OB-GYN.
The late Adrienne Shelly wrote, directed and co-starred in the film and Jessie Nelson's book for the stage musical keeps most of the charm of Shelly's movie script and the film's themes of female empowerment, along with plenty of added pops of comedy set amongst the show's more serious moments. Singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles, best known for the pop anthem "Love Song," makes for an inspired choice for a composer since many of her bestselling pop tunes feature lyrics that center on independence and strength, which work well to give voice to Jenna's plight along with the other strong female characters in the show. Bareilles' score is a combination of several musical styles which, like the different ingredients in Jenna's pies, work very well together.
Director Diane Paulus keeps the wide range of emotions and moods in the show humming along beautifully though there are a few times when the broad characters and the comedy in the show almost approach caricature. Fortunately, that never happens under Paulus' expert direction and with a talented cast who breathe life into these interesting and varied people. Paulus also provides plenty of fast paced transitions which keeps the show moving along in an upbeat way. She also has found a creative way to use the ensemble throughout the show, with added help from choreographer Lorin Latarro's varied and inventive steps, to portray Jenna's thoughts and help with her new pie creations which adds an element of whimsy to the production.
Christine Dwyer, who just joined the tour last week, projects the perfect combination of strength and charm along with many conflicted and weaker feelings as Jenna. She has a bright and beautiful singing voice that provides plenty of introspective moments in her quieter songs as well as a pure sense of power and emotion in her big ballads. It's a well-rounded performance full of nuance and realism.
Bryan Fenkart is equally as realistic and full of warmth as the nerdy doctor who is as romantic as he is odd. He also uses some good physical comedy skills to infuse the role with an element of fun and spontaneity. Lenne Klingaman is bright, kooky and somewhat unsure of herself as one of Jenna's coworkers and best friends Dawn, and Tatiana Lofton as her other friend, the quick-witted Becky, instills the part with a firm sense of no-nonsense reality along with a big dollop of sassiness. As the men in these women's lives, Ryan G. Dunkin is brisk but lovable as the cook at the diner and Larry Marshall projects a pure sense of beauty and wisdom as the older man who owns the restaurant. Jeremy Morse is a comical crowd-pleaser as Ogie, the very strange man who falls for Dawn, and Nick Bailey does good work as Jenna's abusive husband Earl.
Scott Pask's perfect set design features constantly changing elements that quickly whisk us from the colorful small-town diner, which is the centerpiece of the show, to Jenna's home, Dr. Pomatter's office, a hospital and back again with seamless transitions. Ken Billington's lighting design delivers some beautiful stage images and Suttirat Anne Larlarb's costumes perfectly project small town sensibilities. Music director Robert Cookman derives some lush harmonies from the cast, especially from the three female leads, and the small band, under Lilli Wosk's fluid conducting, delivers some bright and beautiful sounds.
Just like the mixture of ingredients that make Jenna's pies so delicious, the combination of a heartwarming book, infectious score, bright creative elements and gifted cast make for a most enjoyable musical.
Waitress, through October 7th, 2018 at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit https://waitressthemusical.com/tour
Book by Jessie Nelson
Cast: (in order of appearance)