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.


“Waitress” serves another slice of wholesome feminist pie

The hit Broadway musical -- visiting Portland this week -- adds to a pop-culture tradition of shows about making your way in the world table by table.

“You want fries with that?’

“More coffee?”

“Want to hear today’s specials?”

If you had a penny for every time those questions are uttered in American restaurants each day, you’d be rolling in dough.

And perhaps you’ve asked them yourself, as a member of the “waitstaff” of eateries modest or deluxe, fast food or haute cuisine. You’ve also heard them uttered in countless plays and films — because if there is any kind of laborer who has had staying power in popular culture it’s the waitress.  To quote Donna Summer, who played one in a music video: “She works hard for the money, so you better treat her right.”

The hit Broadway musical Waitress, which visits the Keller Auditorium on national tour from Sept. 18-23, treats its lead character right, all right.  It portrays a 30-ish woman who whips up whimsical, autobiographical pie creations (i.e., “Lonely Chicago Pie”) for the convivial Joe’s Pie Diner, where she also slings hash.  But there are tropes in the story that extend back to a bevy of other classic tales that center on women servers with pluck, sass and (often) a Cinderella ending.

Desi Oakley (from left), Charity Angel Dawson and Lenna Klingaman serve up the sass in “Waitress,” the Broadway hit on this week’s menu at the Keller Auditorium. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The musical (in a frisky staging by Diane Paulus) is only the latest manifestation of our fascination with the myths, the magic and the drudgery evoked by images of women waiting on tables. Based on the charming, same-titled 2007 movie by the late writer-director Adrienne Shelly,  and outfitted with a score of peppy, sugar-dusted tunes, fetching harmonies and soul-searching ballads by hit singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, the musical broadens and oversells the light comedy of its progenitor and serves up a happy ending as gooey-sweet as a slice of apple pie a la mode.

But it also adds a few pinches of feminist spice to an old story. And maybe there’s always been a feminist streak in the portrayal of women earning their daily bread by serving bread.