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With its down-home folksiness and sweet-as-saccharine pie motif, it would be easy to dismiss Waitress as tripe for tourists strolling Times Square. But first-time musical theater composer-lyricist and six-time Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles imbues the show with an inventive and propulsive score that earned her a Tony nomination, one of four for her Broadway debut, including best musical. And now, as Waitress closes in on 1,000 performances at New York’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre, the touring company arrives in Los Angeles with a fine cast led by Desi Oakley.
While Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 indie movie about a small-town Southern waitress that accidentally gets pregnant by her abusive husband was a sleeper hit with critics and audiences alike, it finds even greater resonance with Bareilles’ nostalgic pop hooks and innovative rhythmic changes. Center stage is Jenna (Oakley), who works at Joe’s Pie Diner baking one-of-a-kind pies, a task that provides spiritual salvation from her dead-end prospects and hot-tempered spouse.
Respite is also found in fellow waitresses, the rowdy and rotund Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) and eccentric nerd Dawn (Lenne Klingaman). All serve orders cooked up by Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin) when they’re not singing tight three-part harmonies as in the witty “Negative,” which has to be the first song ever about a pregnancy test. It’s an unmistakable sign that Waitress, a story of female empowerment, is conceived by an all-woman creative trio including Bareilles as well as Tony-winning director Diane Paulus (Pippin, Porgy and Bess, Hair) and filmmaker-writer Jessie Nelson (I Am Sam).
Jenna’s pregnancy inspires new desserts with revelatory names like “I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie” or “My Eggs Have Trapped Me Pie” or “My Husband’s a Jerk Chicken Pot Pie,” labels based less on opinion than fact. Indeed, Earl (Nick Bailey) is a barely employable lout, which is why Jenna is busy stashing away enough cash to eventually run off with her baby.
Further complicating things is her new gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter, a goofy Bryan Fenkart in a charming slapstick performance that demonstrates balletic comedic chops. Hesitant at first, he samples the pie she has made for him and joins her in the duet “It Only Takes a Taste,” at which point it becomes abundantly clear where their relationship is going. And if it’s not, the first act closes on their raucous duet, “Bad Idea,” which inspires a new confection: “I Wanna Play Doctor With My Gynecologist Pie.”
Bareilles’ score provides a solo for each character, inevitably resulting in some that are stronger than others. In a subplot, Dawn finally gets a date and sings “When He Sees Me,” a playfully melodic portrait of a shy young woman who knows she’s different, having been rejected plenty in the past. Klingaman charms the audience here and throughout, enhancing the distinctive flavor of the supporting cast.
Her date turns out to be Ogie, a character whose eccentricities make Dawn look ordinary. A frequent Revolutionary War reenactment portrayer of Paul Revere, Ogie is also a magician that only eats white food on Wednesdays. Christopher Fitzgerald was nominated for a Tony for the show-stopping role on Broadway. And at the Pantages, Jeremy Morse steps in to riotous effect with his endearing but stalkerish “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” later joining Dawn for the rollicking duet “I Love You Like a Table.”
Taking on the role originated by Jessie Mueller, a Tony winner for Beautiful: The Carol King Musical, Oakley, whose Broadway appearances have been limited to minor parts in Wicked, Les Miserables and Annie, delivers a multifaceted performance as Jenna. She offers an appropriate measure of sugar and spice, but more importantly a crystalline soprano that wanders freely amid the twisting rhythms and time changes of Bareilles’ animated score. Her aria “She Used to Be Mine,” about the girl she was, mounts from quietude to a crescendo of emotion conveyed with heart-piercing veracity.
Veteran director Paulus makes fluid use of set designer Scott Pask’s truck-stop diner, placing her band upstage, blended among the customers. Her ensemble scenes are energetic and voluminous enough to fill the proscenium, while her personal moments play with unmistakable passion and intimacy. But the real star of Waitress is Bareilles, who has achieved so much in her freshman effort. Her poetic lyrics and dynamic score make this a musical that speaks to anyone who has ever yearned to escape the drudgery of everyday life.
Venue: Pantages Theatre, Los Angeles
Cast: Desi Oakley, Charity Angel Dawson, Lenne Klingaman, Bryan Fenkart, Jeremy Morse, Nick Bailey, Larry Marshall, Ryan G. Dunkin, Chante Carmel, Mark Christine, Jim Hogan, David Hughey, Kyra Kennedy, Emily Koch, Max Kumangai, Catherine Last, Elizabeth Last, Maiesha McQueen, Gerianne Perez, Brad Standley, Grace Stockdale
Director: Diane Paulus
Book: Jessie Nelson, based on the film written by Adrienne Shelley
Music & lyrics: Sara Bareilles
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Suttirat Anne Larlarb
Lighting designer: Ken Billington
Sound designer: Jonathan Deans
Music director: Ryan Cantwell
Orchestrations: Sara Bareilles & The Waitress Band
Choreographer: Lorin Latarro
Presented by Hollywood Pantages Theatre, Barry & Fran Weissler, Norton & Elaine Herrick, David I. Berley, Independent Presenters Network, A.C. Orange International, Peter May, Michael Roiff, Ken Schur, Marisa Sechrest, Jam Theatricals, 42nd.club/Square 1 Theatrics, Benjamin Simpson & Joseph Longthorne/Shira Friedman, American Repertory Theater
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