By Mary Damiano
If Jenna, the waitress and pie maker in Waitress, saw the stage incarnation of her life, she might be inspired to create the Magical Musical Pie.
And while the opening refrains of sugar, butter, flour are the basis for every pie Jenna bakes, this recipe also includes soaring songs by Sara Bareilles, a funny, heartfelt book by Jessie Nelson, and powerhouse performances by a talented cast. The result is a deep dish delight that makes the audience savor every bite.
Waitress, based on the 2007 film starring Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion, is one of the brightest shows to hit Broadway—or Broward Center—in some time. A tuneful, tearjerker that is simply terrific, the plot centers on Jenna (Desi Oakley) a waitress and pie-maker extraordinaire in a small southern town. Trapped in an abusive marriage to lazy, possessive Earl (Nick Bailey), Jenna’s only real slice of happiness is baking her imaginative pies at Joe’s Pie Diner, pies with distinctive names like Ain’t You Sweet Potato Pie and Gingersnap Out of It Pie. Jenna was taught early on by her mother to cope with the ugly side of life through baking, and Jenna elevates pie-making to a mystical, magical experience. Life becomes more complicated when she discovers she’s pregnant, and she devises a plan to bake her and her baby to a better life. Plans are further complicated when she and the new guy in town, Dr. Jim Pomater (Bryan Fenkart) form an instant attraction to one another which grows during every pre-natal visit before finally and hilariously turning into an affair.
The plot of the musical closely follows that of the original movie, so while Waitress is technically a remake, it feels fresh and original. There are several subplots that turn the pie place into a Peyton Place, including the complicated marriages of Jenna’s boss Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin) and best friend and fellow waitress Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) and the courtship of plain Jane waitress Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) and her devoted beau Ogie (Jeremy Morse), as well as the observations of Joe (Larry Marshall) Jenna’s loyal and exacting regular customer. All of that, mixed with a whole lot of heart and topped off with a generous dollop of charm make for one very satisfying show.
Waitress is also beautifully designed and staged. The scenic design by Scott Hask is clever, with sets rolling and flying in and out and a vista through the diner’s windows of highway, telephone lines and rolling green countryside that look like they go on for miles. The lighting design by Ken Billington is also impressive, enhancing both the place and the mood. The band is out of the pit and inventively on stage, amping up the levels of an already energetic show.
Writer musician Bareilles, best known for her pop songs like Love Song and Brave and her recent performance as Mary Magdalene in the TV production of Jesus Christ Superstar, has created a host of infectious, catchy songs that work seamlessly with the story but also stand alone.
Oakley’s strong voice and heartfelt performance is at the center of Waitress. She expertly conveys Jenna’s evolution from pragmatic abused wife to fiercely determined woman. Her solos on What Baking Can Do and She Used To Be Mine are powerful and her star-crossed duet with Fenkart, You Matter To Me is beautiful and heartbreaking.
Every member of the cast gets their moment to shine. As Becky, Dawson is maternal and caustic and the perfect best friend, and her second act solo, I Didn’t Plan It, is a showstopper. Klingaman is perfect as Dawn, the sad sack transformed by her soul mate.
Jeremy Morse’s endearing goofiness and his superb physicality as Ogie brings down the house on Never Ever Getting Rid of Me. Marshall delivers as Joe, the observant voice of reason, especially in his big number, Take It From an Old Man. As Dr. Pomatter, Fenkart doesn’t get a solo, but his chemistry with Oakley is magic.
Waitress is a slice of heaven, from the first bite to the last morsel.
Waitress runs through April 22 at Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. For tickets, visit BrowardCenter.org.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus