Regional Reviews: San Diego
The story is set in the South, where an unhappy waitress and baker named Jenna (Christine Dwyer) works at Joe's Diner (Scott Pask's set captures the look of an authentic diner) with her two closest friends, Becky (Maiesha McQueen) and Dawn (Jessie Shelton). Jenna escapes her dull day-to-day life and marriage to an abusive husband, Earl (Matt DeAngelis), by coming up with original dessert flavors (expressed in dream sequences that are cleverly brought to life by lighting designer Ken Billington). Things get even tougher for Jenna when she realizes that she's pregnant. Encouraged by Becky and Dawn, Jenna hopes to leave Earl and make sure that her child can live a good life. She also grows closer to her physician, the married Dr. Pomatter (Steven Good).
Nelson's book is faithful to the movie and features idiosyncratic people and comically awkward conversations. The writer tries a little too hard to be cringeworthy and offbeat in some early conversations, but the humor becomes funnier once the audience gets to know the characters. Outside of Earl's loutish personality and a dramatic flashback involving Jenna's late mother (Grace Stockdale), act one is fairly light with plenty of jokes and funny situations involving the three waitresses. Diane Paulus directs many of the scenes with well-timed visual humor and occasional slapstick. Paulus is also able to take the narrative seriously, particularly when Jenny's trials become even more stressful. Nelson's writing turns deeper after act two begins, when theatregoers realize that Jenna isn't the only one living an unfulfilling existence. Almost everyone Jenna knows is dealing with personal issues, and very few of them seem to be truly happy. It's a credit to Nelson's storytelling that there are still a lot of laughs, levity, and moments of hope to balance the darker aspects of the story.
Bareilles' tunes range from comical to poignant. Some of them, such as "Opening Up," "What Baking Can Do" and "She Used to Be Mine," are written in a style similar to some of her more well-known songs, and create a degree of audience empathy for Jenna's struggles. Others, such as "When He Sees Me," "You Will Still Be Mine," "Never Ever Getting Rid of Me," "I Didn't Plan It" and "Take It From an Old Man," are written in a variety of musical styles and fit the personalities of the supporting characters. The musicians, including music director/keyboardist Robert Cookman and conductor/pianist Lilli Wosk, play the melodies that help punctuate touching moments throughout the plot. Onstage, and sometimes visible to the audience, the band knows how to build up emotion during the most serious moments of the evening.
Dwyer sings and performs with a growing strength that's a perfect fit for the role of Jenna. Her renditions of numbers such as "What Baking Can Do," and "Everything Changes" showcase her range as a star. She shares a few duets with Good and, although his voice is hard to hear in the act one finale "Bad Idea," he holds his own opposite Dwyer in the upbeat "It Only Takes a Taste" and the calming "You Matter to Me." Other supporting players, including McQueen, Shelton, DeAngelis, Larry Marshall as the diner owner Joe, and Jeremy Morse as Dawn's extremely persistent suitor Ogie, give memorable performances. Each brings depth to Bareilles' songs.
Opening the 2018-2019 Broadway San Diego season, Waitress manages to be a hilarious and smart exploration of a woman who wants to improve her world. This may not be the kind of plot you'd expect from a musical blockbuster, but Bareilles, Nelson and Paulus pull it off with the right amount of genuine compassion.
Waitress, through December 2, 2018 at San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 3rd Avenue, San Diego CA. Tickets start at $26.00 and can be purchased online at www.broadwaysd.com or by phone at 619-564-3000. For more information on the tour, visit waitressthemusical.com/tour.