Dallas — Pretty, perky Jenna is the wildly creative pie maker and hard-knocks heroine of the title in Waitress, the musical stage adaptation of Adrienne Shelley’s 2007 movie, with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles (Grammy nominee for “Brave” and “Love Song”), book by Jessie Nelson, choreography by Lorin Latarro, and direction by Diane Paulus. The show, designed by an all-female creative team and featuring Jessie Mueller in its Broadway premiere in 2016, received a Tony nomination for Best Musical (but in the year of Hamilton).
The touring production, onstage at the Dallas Summer Musicals and starring a bright and touching Desi Oakley in the title role, remains a tasty concoction of country pop with some delightfully funny songs and a solid cast.
Oakley’s Jenna is a vulnerable country girl, married to an abusive loser (sulky Nick Bailey, last seen here as the title character in Hood: The Robin Hood Musical Adventure at Dallas Theater Center) who rips off her tips at day’s end and bullies her into guilt at the very idea of escape. What’s worse, she gets pregnant. “I do dumb things when I get drunk and sleep with my husband,” she admits to her waitress gal pals. Her all-female support system at Joe’s Diner have their own trials and tribulations, not the least of which is dealing with the men—or lack thereof – in their lives. Becky (a bold and funny Charity Angél Dawson) is loyal to her invalid husband but has a fearsome sex drive to deal with, as she explains in a tart “I Didn’t Plan It.” Ryan G. Dunkin is a hoot as the linebacker/cook Cal, who lays into his waitresses to keep the customers satisfied, and then bobbles around with that special satisfied smile he never expected to wear.
Nervous, nerdy Dawn (a skittish Lenne Klingaman) is longing for a hook-up through her online dating service, but is stunned by the crazy success of a five-minute date with the self- absorbed Ogie (a frenetic, hilarious Jeremy Morse) who stalks her to the diner and sings the bizarre, goofily athletic love song, “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.”
Still Jenna thinks just maybe one of her expert pies – maybe the popular blueberry bacon special she learned from her mama – will win a $20,000 prize and get her and her unborn child out of a crummy marriage and a nowhere town.
Of the many improbable events in the show, Jenna’s unrequited lust for her gangly, geeky, married gynecologist (an awkwardly romantic Bryan Fenkart) is maybe the weirdest. The affair, comically begun on the examining table, turns out to be a source of inspiration for our girl, but we just breeze by the whole ethics of such a relationship. Their touching duet, “You Matter to Me,” is a reflection on passion, romantic love and something more that lasts beyond an affair.
Our trio of girls and their dudes keep the fire on the grill in a hilarious, raunchy scene of all three couples doin’ what comes natur’lly across the stage with a big prairie sunset behind them and the diner. Just what’s not to understand here?
Oakley delivers the goods in the show’s most memorable number, “She Used to Be Mine,” singing movingly and honestly of the girl Jenna once was before she lost faith in her best, most creative self in the hard life of a motherless child and an abused wife. We want pie to win the contest, or some other great break to come her way. Spoiler alert: It does — and it’s not a complete surprise.
The four-piece onstage band — three of them women, and led by pianist/conductor Jenny Cartney — was just the thing for the songs and the two-steppin’ dancing. But on opening night, the overpowering volume made it hard to hear all the lyrics of some songs.
Still, Waitress serves up some appetizing entertainment, and opening night audiences ate it up with a standing O and lots of happy hollering for all the cast.