Touring ‘Waitress’ a blue-plate special with a side of extraordinary
By Bob Abelman
There’s an old adage from the days of Rodgers and Hart that a sign of a great musical is audience members humming a show tune on their way out of the theater.
While leaving the Connor Palace Theatre after witnessing “Waitress,” several show tunes – with their close-knit harmonies, coffee house/country bar sensibilities and poignant lyrics – fight for supremacy.
It can even be argued that “Waitress” is all about the music, for playwright Jessie Nelson’s faithful adaptation of Adrienne Shelly’s low-budget 2007 movie of the same name is a rather formulaic confection about the hopes and dreams of small-town waitress Jenna, who helps run Joe’s Pie Diner somewhere in the South.
Jenna is a working-class woman in a loveless and abusive marriage who finds herself predictably pregnant. Baking has been her lifelong escape, form of self-expression and only connection to her mother during seemingly simpler times. Sex with married gynecologist Dr. Pomatter, who is transparently built to be adorable, serves as temporary escape from her loser husband Earl, who is transparently built to be deplorable, and results in the inevitable romantic complications.
Jenna is surrounded by supportive sidekicks – outgoing Becky and woefully insecure Dawn – who are fellow waitresses tasked, as sidekicks tend to be, with providing much of the show’s comic relief.
In short, the story that drives “Waitress” is a blue-plate special – marginally nutritious fare doled out in pre-measured portions that are hardly out of the ordinary.
But the gorgeous songs by Grammy-winning composer and lyricist Sara Bareilles give personal insight into the hopes and dreams of the show’s central characters and, by doing so, offer pitch-perfect voice and a gorgeous melody to our own expectations and aspirations. From the show-opening “What’s Inside” to the finale “Everything Changes,” the songs air lift the storytelling that surrounds them.
So does director Diane Paulus’ remarkable staging, which adds a palpable heightened sense of reality to everything.
Scenic designer Scott Pask’s picturesque rendering of the diner comes with a perpetual sunrise out the windows and an outstanding six-piece band (Jenny Cartney, Lilli Wosk, Elena Bonomo, Alexandria Bodick Nick Anton, Ed Hamilton) in the corner.
Choreographer Lorin Latarro orchestrates the emergence of baking products, paraphernalia and pies out of nowhere that seamlessly end up in and then out of the hands of performers.
Songs are softly lit interior monologues that are interrupted by brief moments of brightly illuminated flashback or fantasy, courtesy of Ken Billington’s lighting design, during which the surrounding ensemble rhythmically leans into the featured singer as if riding the invisible tide of the melody.
The songs and the staging are sufficient to turn a blue plate special into a theatrical experience that is something truly extraordinary, but Broadway-caliber performers are inserted into the mix of this touring production. The characters they create aren’t just relatable, they are lovable. And the songs they sing aren’t just hummable; they are memorable.
As Jenna, Desi Oakley lives in the moment of every moment of this production and is able to communicate astounding intimacy in a playhouse as cavernous as our Connor Palace Theatre. She simultaneously blows the roof off with her powerful and perfectly nuanced vocals and turns Jenna’s 11 o’clock self-reflection, “She Used to Be Mine,” into a heart-pounding show-stopper.
An absolutely charming Leene Klingaman and endearing Charity Angel Dawson play Dawn and Becky, respectively, and bring dimension to what could easily be cardboard caricatures. And their gorgeous voices blend beautifully with Oakley’s, particularly in “A Soft Place to Land.” Their love interests – the perfectly elfin Jeremy Morse as Ogie, who nearly steals the show with “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” and the terrific Ryan G. Dunkin as the diner’s sardonic cook Cal – are delightful.
Bryan Fenkart brings all the endearing idiosyncrasies required of
Dr. Pomatter to the table and his beautiful voice helps turn “You Matter to Me” into one of those tunes that are hummed once the show is over. Nick Bailey, in the thankless role of husband Earl, well manages the balancing act of portraying damaged goods while offering the hauntingly beautiful “You Will Still Be Mine.”
This touring production – which is launching in Cleveland – also boasts of a remarkable ensemble. Its members, including recent Baldwin Wallace University graduate Kyra Kennedy, don’t just complement what the creators, director and designers provide, they accentuate it.
The opening number in this musical suggests that what’s inside of a pie is more than just a little flour, eggs and sugar. There’s heart. This touring musical puts that on display.
Touring “Waitress” at Playhouse Square
WHERE: Connor Palace Theatre, 1511 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Nov. 5
TICKETS & INFO: $29-$109, call 216-241-6000 or visit playhousesquare.com
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 22, 2017.
Lead image: Charity Angel Dawson (from left), Desi Oakley and Leene Klingaman. Photo / Joan Marcus