Encore Michigan

‘Waitress’ is moving and uplifting at Wharton Center

Review January 25, 2018 Jenn McKee

LANSING,, Mich.–If I could leave the touring production of Waitress a tip, it would be a whoppingly huge one, because it’s rare for me to feel so profoundly moved, while also experiencing so much joy, during the course of a show.

Inspired by Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 indie film hit of the same name – with a book by Jessie Nelson, and Tony Award-nominated music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles – the show tells the story of a small-town, pie-baking Southern waitress named Jenna (Desi Oakley) who’s fallen out of love with her insensitive, insecure husband Earl (Nick Bailey). When Jenna accidentally gets pregnant, she falls for the town’s new, charming gynecologist (Dr. Pomatter, played by Bryan Fenkart) and starts, with the support of her coworker friends (Becky, played by Charity Angel Dawson, and Dawn, played by Lenne Klingaman), to plot a baking-fueled escape from her life.

The first thing that will blow you away is Bareilles’ winning score, which achieves its storytelling ends with ebullient charm, humor, and heart, and makes itself instantly at home in your ear, courtesy of some killer song hooks. Jenna’s standing-at-the-crossroads heartstring-yanker, “She Used to Be Mine,” has become the show’s trademark number for good reason – and Oakley’s rendition soars to the Wharton’s rafters – but I drove home humming and thinking about some new favorites (“Bad Idea,” “Opening Up,” etc.). Not every pop singer/songwriter can seamlessly make the jump from Top 40 to Broadway, but Waitress leaves me anxious to see what theatrical project Bareilles might take up next.

In the meantime, some critics may take Waitress (and the movie that inspired it) to task for trafficking in cartoonish characterizations. For instance, nerdy, closed-off, and uptight fellow waitress Dawn meets her comic relief match in over-the-top goofball magician Ogie (Jeremy Morse); sassy best friend Becky knowingly, wittily cracks wise in every situation; the pie diner’s crotchety owner, Joe (Larry Marshall), is fussy but secretly soft-hearted; Dr. Pomatter is clinically awkward; and Jenna’s self-absorbed, jealous numbskull husband Earl doesn’t seem to possess a single redeeming quality, thus making it easier to sympathize with Jenna’s adulterous acts and sense of being trapped.

But even while wholly aware of the show’s reliance on these narrative broad strokes, I quickly gave myself over to the show’s endearingly quirky tone and rhythms, anyway. And I don’t regret it for a minute.

Indeed, as I drove home, I thought about how satisfying it’s been to see everyday women’s stories told on stage in recent years. This past fall, The Color Purple knocked my socks off; and now, with Waitress, we get another woman-focused tale that’s not, in the end, about which man she’ll end up with, but instead about how she can, against so many odds, forge her own path to happiness.

Technically the production, originally directed by Diane Paulus, runs like a highly polished machine. Set designer Scott Pask’s creations – which make Joe’s Pie Diner cheerfully appear before your eyes (by way of Larin Latarro’s meticulously thoughtful choreography), as well as Dr. Pomatter’s office, and Jenna and Earl’s low-rent home – are whisked on and off stage with impressive ease and efficiency; Ken Billington’s lighting design gives small moments greater punch (Fenkart seems to glow from inside upon tasting Jenna’s pie); and Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s costumes not only build on how each character tries to present him/herself to the world, but also breathes life into the socioeconomic world in which they live.

And from top to bottom, the Waitress ensemble is drop-dead terrific. Klingaman and Dawson deliver both physical comedy and powerhouse vocals; Morse was a crowd favorite, blowing the roof off the place with the country-fried, determined-suitor anthem “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” a first act highlight (the crowd could even see Morse doing a cartwheel behind the set while making his exit on opening night); Fenkart’s fish-out-of-water, socially clumsy Dr. Pomatter is an endearing goofball, and his duets with Oakley – the brilliant first act closer “Bad Idea,” and “You Matter to Me,” which had me ugly-crying before we even got to “She Used to be Mine” – provide the show with much of its emotional resonance.

But Oakley is, of course, the Waitress around which the show is built, and the actress more than delivers, presenting Jenna as a disillusioned, beaten-down woman whose extramarital affair, more than anything, demonstrates to herself that she’s still capable of passion and joy, after years of experiencing neither. She’s simply not in a life that encourages (or even allows for) for them. So when Jenna finally looks upon her newborn daughter for the first time, she’s newly fortified by a faith in herself that she previously lacked.

Indeed, just as Jenna bridges her way to a more fulfilling life by giving herself over to “pretty good bad idea” – namely, ignoring her brain’s objections and allowing herself to get swept up in feeling – I suggest that you simply let yourself be seduced by “Waitress”’ many charms. As life-affirming, heartfelt productions go, you simply can’t beat the service.

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