Order up! “Waitress” hits the spot

In the hit Broadway musical, soaring, soulful pop songs help a server find a sense of place.

It’s amazing that Waitress, the tiny little indie film from 2007 about a pregnant pie-making server in a bad marriage, ever became a Broadway musical. That this story – a rather intimate tale about a simple Southern woman’s life and love – has become a hit and is now on a Broadway Across America tour is even more surprising.

That is, until you see the touring production of Waitress — with a book by Jessie Nelson, music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, and directed by Diane Paulus — which is serving up pie and plenty of female sass through Sunday at Keller Auditorium.

Pie in the sky’s the limit: Charity Angel Dawson, Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman in the national tour of “Waitress.” Photo: Joan Marcus.

If you don’t remember the film — which starred Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion and was written and directed by Adrienne Shelly — the basic plot is about an unhappily-married waitress, Jenna (Desi Oakley in the touring cast) who also happens to be a fantastic pie maker. After a drunken night with her husband, Earl (Nick Bailey), she ends up pregnant and then falls for her new OB/GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart) who is married. Although Jenna’s love life takes center stage, the real story here is about her life at the diner, with her best friends/surrogate family, Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) and Dawn (Lenne Klingaman).

Oakley, with Broadway cred in Wicked, Les Miserables, and Annie, sparkles as Jenna. She is a solid actress, showing us Jenna’s insecurities and struggles to find her own strength, but where she really soars is in those numbers by Bareilles, especially when she’s singing with Fenkart. The two actors actually don’t seem to have much chemistry when they first meet, but when they belt out “It Only Takes a Taste” together, you start to believe their affection for one another; it only grows stronger when they sing “Bad Idea” and “You Matter to Me.” That’s the power of Bareilles’s songwriting.

Popular singer-songwriter Bareilles has given Waitress a type of music that is rarely heard on Broadway: soulful and melodious songs that would fit just as well on the pop radio as they do on the musical stage. While most of the company gets to join in the singing, Jenna is the clear star, and she has the pipes for it. Her incredible voice, the beautiful songs, and her ability to act while belting out show-stoppers (and sometimes baking, giving new meaning to the term “triple threat”) lends emotional weight.

Jenna’s dead mother (Grace Stockdale in a powerful performance with no words) appears to her during songs, and these memories give us insight into the threads Jenna has carried into her own life from her mother: there is pie-making, of course, but there is also suffering and abuse at the hands of men.

This was a feminist film when Shelly made it, and Paulus has built on that. While some musicals (don’t get me started on Billy Elliot) destroy the spirit of the films they were based on, turning poignant moments into laughable musical numbers, Nelson and especially Bareilles treat Shelly’s story with the respect it deserves. Sure, there are a few cheap laughs — at the goofy relationship between Dawn and her love interest, Ogie (Jeremy Morse, a true talent whose schtick goes on a little too long), and at the sexual exploits of the three female leads — but this musical is not laughing at domestic violence or at the strength needed to break its cycles.

As one expects from Broadway work, the production design is remarkable: That they mount all of these high-definition backgrounds, quick-changing sets, and moving parts – and let’s not forget pie cases! – for a six-day run never ceases to amaze. And Scott Pask’s scenic design is exceptional: the primary setting, Joe’s Pie Diner, is a special treat – just like the pies it serves up – but the other settings, including an outdoor bus stop, a doctor’s exam room, and a living room, also serve to quickly move us to wherever the action is taking place.

While there is plenty of sex, desire, and love in Waitress, don’t mistake this for a romance. Jenna’s eventual clarity of mind does come from her love for someone – but it’s not who you expect. Waitress is a moving tribute to women finding their place and meaning – and, don’t forget, it’s also a tribute to pie. So, you’ll forgive it for going on a little too long in the second act. And you’ll probably even forgive it for requiring Jenna to be rescued by a man (especially because, again, it’s not who you expect).


Waitress continues through Sunday, September 23, at Keller Auditorium, part of Portland Opera’s Broadway in Portland Series. https://portland.broadway.com/

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