BY SANDY STAGGS
The 2007 indie hit film “Waitress” by Adrienne Shelly may seem, at first bite, an unlikely choice for a musical. The setting is contemporary, the characters are working class and the plot is prosaic.
But one would be wrong to make such an egregious assumption. From the opening motif of “Sugar, Butter, Flour” that runs like a cohesive thread throughout the musical now playing at the Peace Center, Sara Bareilles (scribe of mega-pop hits like “Love Song” and “Brave”), demonstrates that this is no half-baked romantic comedy.
Instead, “Waitress” is a feel-good triumph of the female spirit. And a show that made Broadway history with women in the four major creative roles: music and lyrics by Bareilles, book by Jessie Nelson, direction by Tony winner (“Hair,” Pippin,” “Finding Neverland”) Diane Paulus, and choreography by Lorin Latarro.
Owing much inspiration to “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” the play is set at Joe’s Diner somewhere in the South, where everyone has their own cross to bear.
Waitress and pie baker Jenna Hunterson (Desi Oakley) is alone at the crack of dawn, mixing up ingredients for today’s one-of-a-kind culinary concoction. Besides, sugar, butter and flour, she adds a cup of emotion, a tablespoon of regrets, and a dash a hope as she contemplates her existence and bleak future.
As we soon discover, Jenna (like her pie-baking mother before her) is trapped in a crummy marriage to an abusive asshole husband, Earl (Nick Bailey giving us his best despicable irreverence). He confiscates her tips and forces her to kiss him. There’s no actual physical abuse on stage, but it is clear from Jenna’s instilled fear and subjugation, that Earl has struck her in the past. And in this era of the #MeToo movement, it’s no surprise poor Bailey got a few boos from the Peace Center audience at the final bow. He’s just an actor, folks!
And to make matters worse, after one drunken tryst with Earl, Jenna is now pregnant.
There’s the dingbat Dawn played by Lenne Klingaman (remember Vera from “Alice”?). She’s an eccentric plain Jane who has had zero luck with the fellas, that is, until an Internet date changes everything.
And Becky, (the phenomenal Charity Angel Dawson who has been with “Waitress” since the Broadway production, originating the role of Nurse Norma.) Becky is mired in an unrewarding marriage with a bedridden husband, who she dearly loves but can’t fulfill her needs, as she so spiritedly belts in the rousing “I Didn’t Plan It.” at the top of act two.
Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin) is the cook and boss who towers his employees at about 6’4”. He has a menacing presence, but it is clear the ladies aren’t intimidated at all by his authority or size. A Harley-Davidson biker-type, Cal is also in a sexless marriage and hasn’t touched his wife in 15 years, because she may be a lesbian.
The diner is owned by the elderly, crotchety Joe (Broadway veteran Larry Marshall, a Tony nominee for “Porgy and Bess”), who drops in every day for a slice of Jenna’s crusty sensation. You know the type. Sits at the same table everyday with myriad special requests. He may be in declining health but he doesn’t miss a trick.
Throughout the story, Joe imparts his nuggets of wisdom to wisdom on Jenna (such as the most sentimental tune in the set, the folksy “Take It From An Old Man”), and encourages her to enter her delicious pies in the Springfield Pie Contest with a $20,000 cash prize, enough for her and baby to get out of town and start a new life without Earl.
And last but certainly not least, we meet self-described poem writer Ogie (Jeremy Morse), Dawn’s equally eccentric date who stalks her at the diner in the fantastic and scene-stealing “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.” Ogie (part-Jim Carrey and part-Pee Wee Herman) is so peculiar that even social misfit Dawn can’t tolerate him, until she discovers they many mutual interests, particularly their love of Revolutionary War recreations, which plays out in the show’s single most moment of utter incredulity and humor: Dawn as Betsy Ross and Ogie as Paul Revere. You can use you imagination on that one.
Morse has been with “Waitress” since the show’s pre-Broadway previews at the American Repertory Theater in Massachusetts, but it was Christopher Fitzgerald as Ogie who won the musical’s sole Tony Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical.
Yet, the core romance at the heart of “Waitress” is Jenna’s unexpected steamy and not-so-clandestine affair with her handsome but nervous (and very married) Yankee gynecologist Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart, in an arresting and lighthearted).
Also, special kudos to Maiesha McQueen, who as the no-nonsense Nurse Norma, injects a dose of her unsolicited humorous commentary about the sexual shenanigans in the exam room.
There is much to adore about this unexpected hit musical that broke several Broadway box office records, but most of the credit goes to Bareilles, whose catchy hooks, piano riffs and irresistible pop ditty constructions should have landed several tracks on the Top 40 chart. The gorgeous harmonies in “Opening Up,” the cute trio of pregnant women in the Andrew Sisters-style lullaby “Club Knocked Up,” the country-pop duet “Bad Idea” (realized by the director as a montage of Jenna and Dr. Dr. Pomatter’s trysts, the pregnancy test in “The Negative” (as in a negative result on the pee stick), and Oakley’s outstanding vocal work in “You Matter to Me” and the heartbreaking “She Used to Be Mine” all add up to one entertaining and inventive evening of theatre.
Ms. Paulus has an undeniable expertise and penchant for abundant amalgams of comedic situations in outlandish and, sometimes, over the top antics displays. But, hey I dig camp.
And moreover, this show has the audience rooting for Jenna the entire musical, even cheering when she makes a life-altering decision near the end of the play.
In addition, two precious local tots from the Upstate alternate the role of “baby” Lulu in the final scene: Charlotte Bates opened the run and Regan Ciccarelli.
“Waitress” continues through Sunday, May 13 at the Peace Center, 300 South Main Street in Greenville. For tickets, call the Box Office at (864) 467-3000 or visit http://www.peacecenter.org.