Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson’s “Waitress,” the Broadway musical, is based on the work of the late Adrienne Shelly, who wrote and directed “Waitress,” the film, which opened in 2007 in no more than 707 auditoriums, yet became a seminal work of art regarding individual agency and free will. Starring Keri Russell as the protagonist (Jenna), the motion picture highlights her narrative of being a waitress and connoisseur of pies at Joe’s Pie Diner in the Southern United States. Jenna becomes knocked up by her abusive husband (Earl), has an affair with her OB/GYN, Dr. Pomatter, and finds herself on a journey of self-discovery, self-worth, and ultimately self-actualization upon realizing she’s beholden to nobody but herself. Notwithstanding the questionable, but perhaps forgiveable ethics of its unfaithful characters, we leave with the biggest takeaway which is that being “happy enough” is probably not worth settling for.
Bareilles, who is a certifiable pop star and six-time Grammy nominee with chart-toppers like “Love Song,” “Brave,” and more, penned “Waitress’” indelible music and lyrics, which have deservedly earned much publicity since being played to passionately receptive audiences on Broadway since 2016. Nelson, too, is worthy of ample credit for writing some of the most well-defined and hilarious characters to ever be put on a stage.”Waitress” been such a smash that it’s now touring and can be experienced at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through August 26th.
Throughout the smooth two-hour-and-forty-minute production, Nelson’s adapted book feels disarmingly brisk while at the same time not losing the depth of its message. Similarly, director Diane Paulus’ staging maximizes each scene – which has an immersively down-home quality to it, thanks to set designer Scott Pask – and explores themes of helplessness, curiosity, and freedom. Moreover, Lorin Latarro’s choreography lovingly incorporates actual flour, dough, eggs, as well as spatulas; Ken Billington’s lush lighting invites us to examine the intimate lives of its characters; and Richard Mawbey’s wigs and make-up design contribute to an authenticity of appearance that sates the mind’s eye as much as the pies do.
Captaining the cast is the fantastic Desi Oakley as Jenna, who, like Jessie Mueller, Betsy Wolfe, and even Bareilles before her, brings an unmistakable It factor to the role. There is a darlingness to Oakley’s portrayal that is tempered by a steadfast determination to seek out an escape from her circumstances by using the ingenuity of her ambition (i.e., entering a pie-baking contest with a $25,000 grand prize). Through Oakley’s emotively contemplative and buttery voice, not to mention her incredible vocal runs, we see Jenna pinpoint what is holding her back, and we commiserate with the first signs of her burgeoning empowerment, as in “What Baking Can Do.” And when the storm caused by her villainous husband, Earl (Nick Bailey) becomes more torrential, Oakley’s vocals soar with a courageous surrender, enabling us to grieve with her persona who cries out during “She Used to Be Mine.” As Jenna’s matrimonial adversary, Bailey is so convincingly dictatorial as the heartlessly crude despot in Jenna’s life – yet is someone that we can paradoxically chuckle at with his man bun and his name tattooed on his chest — that the narrative is given an extra bite of nuance and meaning that might not otherwise be there.
Oakley’s Jenna shares an interwoven dynamic with the other personalities at Joe’s Diner, such as the rugged, but sweet-hearted horoscope-reading aficionado, Joe himself (played tenderly by Larry Marshall), her bandana-wearing task-mastering supervisor Cal (the comedically skilled Ryan G. Dunkin), and particularly Dawn (Lenne Klingaman), a diffident damsel with red-rimmed specs and a cute snort of a laugh, and Becky (Charity Angél Dawson), a powerful woman with a gritty, no-nonsense edge to her. Klingaman and Dawson are excellent in several of the group numbers – such as “Opening Up,” “The Negative,” and “A Soft to Place to Land” — as they take part in mellifluous three-part harmonies with their lead. Klingaman is, moreover, delightfully hopeful and funny in “When He Sees Me,” and melts our hearts when interacting with Jeremy Morse and his lovably persistent Ogie, as they elatedly discover commonalities between each other (e.g., they’re both American history buffs and prefer their whipped cream on the side).
It should be said that Morse more or less steals the show as the “stalking elf” when he first arrives at the diner, in all his character’s neurotic glory, with a bouquet in hand and a whole host of idiosyncrasies in the other. With a rocket-boost of fervor, he earns deafening cheers as he nimbly moves across the stage, criss-crossing his legs, and balletically getting himself into a frenzy as he blisteringly sings, poeticizes, and operatically howls “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.” Likewise, Dawson ingratiates her Becky to the crowd, especially during comically-timed truculent exchanges with Cal, where she offers a certain unapologetic je ne sais quoi that spotlights a soulful passion which bubbles up and bursts forth in spectacular fashion during her gutty performance of “I Didn’t Plan It.”
Bryan Fenkart is the awkwardly nice Dr. Pomatter, who becomes romantically involved with Jenna. Fenkart has a knack for physical comedy, and infuses Pomatter with a strong inquisitiveness and hankering for Jenna that yields hysterical glances and one-liners from his assistant, the humorously exasperated Nurse Norma, who is superbly actualized by Maiesha McQueen. Pomatter’s numbers, including “It Only Takes a Taste,” “Bad Idea,” and “You Matter to Me,” underscore a stark sensibility and yearning in Fenkart’s performance that melds intriguingly well with Jenna’s survival instinct to re-build her life, producing slapstick and sweet moments. Fenkart’s robust and wistful singing also enriches Oakley’s timbre beautifully, creating an attractive tapestry of sound that furnishes a show that already hits home with the heart.
Certainly, the six-person band (Ryan Cantwell, Lilli Wosk, Elena Bonomo, Lexi Bodick, Nick Anton, Ed Hamilton), who seamlessly mix in well with the scenery upstage, are a big reason for the production’s hot-and-ready warmth and charm. Not every musical requires a full-sized orchestra, and this small-town saga rises ever fruitfully with subtler instrumentation that speaks its language.
Without question, “Waitress” is comprised of the most compellingly satisfying ingredients – some uproarious, others potent, with even a dash of uplifting fare. The elements complement one another impeccably because each character is abundantly accentuated with traits and lyrics that are identifiable, and, most of all, memorable as a result of Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson’s appetizing collaboration.
For more information about this musical and others at the Pantages Theatre, please visit hollywoodpantages.com