“Butter. Sugar. Flour.” These three words are sprinkled like incantations throughout the 2016 musical Waitress, a tasty, buttermilk tart and bright woman-powered show that features Sara Bareilles’ sublime alt-country, contemporary pop music and lyrics and a multi-layered book by Jessie Nelson based on Adrienne Shelly’s 2006 indie film of the same name.
Waitress, the movie, was significant for women. It was written and directed by Shelly, and featured three women central to the story, with, to coin another women’s film, “boys on the side.” You looked forward to more stories from Shelly’s wryly cockeyed viewpoint, but tragically, she was murdered by a random intruder in her New York office before her movie rocked the Sundance Festival.
It’s important to keep Shelly’s voice alive and that’s one reason why the musical version of Waitress is such a triumph. Her “little movie” about a waitress who is to Crisco what Bach is to b minor, and her two gal sidekicks who have small town dreams of their own, is writ mile-high large for the stage through the nervy talents of director Diane Paulus.
Although Bareilles’ score contains a bevy of easy-going toe-tappers and tongue-in-cheeky lyrics (Bareilles did the orchestrations too, palatably performed by the Waitress Band, honky-tonk outfit playing a big-old piano, guitars, fiddle and percussion, and often moved to cheer on what’s happening onstage) and the performances by the touring company are sharp and stirring, there’s not a lot of classic Broadway bombast to be seen, and nary a tap-dance number (although there is a bit of Appalachian clogging, nattily executed by the fireplug-like exuberance of Jeremy Morse).
What Waitress serves up instead is a simple and soulful dessert you’ll want to linger over, not wolf down in sybaritic haste. The feminist viewpoint goes down easy because it’s just so instantly relatable no matter if you’re a waitress, talented baker, or someone who’s just plain lonely and smart.
The aproned superhero of the musical is Jenna (Desi Oakley, emotive and empathetic as a culinary artist trapped in a life of compromises), a waitress in a pie diner that seems to be located in flyover territory. Joe’s Pie Diner—owned by the curmudgeonly Joe (Larry Marshall, in fine voice in his tender solo “Take It From An Old Man” and such a pro that his salacious amorous reminiscences are endearing rather than icky)—may be small potatoes, but Jenna uses pie crust as a canvas to express her emotions, imagination and frustrations.
Which is why, when impregnated by her resentful, bullying husband Earl (Nick Bailey, expertly capturing the coiled menace of a man-child whose best years were in high school), she whips up “Betrayed by My Eggs Pie.” Jenna wants to win a pie-baking contest in a nearby town and take the winnings to up and leave Earl, who is such a charmer he pokes out his hand for her tips like a brat demanding an allowance.
And when Jenna has an impromptu affair with her OB/GYN Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart, disarmingly fumbling), she pours her pixilating lust into “I Wanna Play Doctor with My Gynecologist Pie,” a feeling mutually expressed in the titillating twang of the song “Bad Idea.”
There’s also a “Lonely Chicago Pie” and a “Mermaid Pie,” of which the ingredients are mouth-wateringly hinted at by Jenna. Her life is not the only one laced with concessions and iffy decisions. Her fellow waitresses Becky (Charity Angel Dawson, possessed of a powerhouse voice and withering delivery of her ample snappy comebacks) is saddled with an older, invalid husband and grabs any comfort in life she can get via an affair with a mystery man.
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And the introverted, OCD Dawn (Lenne Klingaman, perfectly, joyously geek-girlish) looks to the personals for her dream guy, someone who likes Revolutionary War reenactments and the History Channel as much as she does. Darn if she doesn’t find him in Ogie (Morse), an unapologetically PeeWee Herman-esque chap who’s not afraid to burst into truly awful spontaneous verse and recitations of the Constitution to show his appreciation of Dawn.
All three women share an all-too common commonality: They are lacking in love and being seen and heard for who they are. Bareilles’ music is extraordinary and kind, but one interlude never fails to bring me to tears. In the gentle, almost meditative duet between Jenna and Dr. Pomatter, “You Matter to Me,” the lovers sing of what they give to each other—a sense of comfort, peace and belonging. But what is most powerful is Jenna getting what she never had; someone to listen to her, someone to hold her in his arms and not expect anything in return.
Another lump-in-the-throat moment is “She Used to Mine,” as Jenna laments the girl she once was—strong, sure and capable. Where did that girl go? We’ve all had that sad reckoning in the mirror.
Critics have cited some of the male characters being one-dimensional, but I and the largely female audience didn’t have a problem at all with it, sharing the “The shoe’s on the other foot for once” sentiment.
So menfolk in their fulsomeness may be under-represented in Waitress. Well, boo-the-F-hoo. They only have millennia of male-driven plays, literature, art and music to comfort themselves with.
For us, we have shows like Waitress, which celebrates sisterhood, difficult women and the sacred home art of baking. “Butter. Sugar. Flour.” Three ingredients that transform into love. We could all use a slice of that.
Waitress . Book by Jessie Nelson, Music and Lyrics by Sara Bareilles . Director: Diane Paulus. Featuring: Desi Oakley, Charity Angel Dawson, Lenne Klingaman, Bryan Fenkart, Jeremy Morse, Nick Bailey, Larry Marshall, Ryan G. Dunkin. Orchestrations: Sara Bareilles & the Waitress Band, Music Supervision & Arrangements: Nadia DiGiallonardo. Choreographer: Lorin Latarro. Set Design: Scott Pask. Costume Design: Suttirat Anne Larlarb. Lighting Design: Ken Billington. Sound Design: Jonathan Deans. Wig & Make Up Design: Richard Mawbey. National tour presented at The National Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.