Fort Worth — It’d be disingenuous to pretend that I didn’t toy with opening this review with an extended baking metaphor—“mix talent with clever, yearning lyrics, pour into a perfect venue, and bake for two hours, 15 minutes (with one 20 minute intermission).”
But for three reasons, I decided against it. First, all my baking knowledge comes from marathon sessions of The Great British Bake-off, so it’s broad, but not super deep, so best not to run the risk of getting something wrong. Second, there is not one baking metaphor left that has not been used already in a review of Waitress—it’s critic catnip, they can’t resist it. Finally, I decided against it because, and I say this without rancor, there’s already enough twee-ness baked into (damn—okay, just the one) the show’s marketing and its accompanying trappings—plastic pie necklaces, individually packaged theme pies-in-jars, and syrupy cocktails. And they’re fine, but unnecessary; Waitress is more than good enough on its own without gilding the lily. And this touring production, directed by Tony Award-winner Diane Paulus and presented here by Performing Arts Fort Worth as part of the 2017-18 Broadway at the Bass series, is well worth your time.
Based on the 2007 film of the same name from the late and much lamented Adrienne Shelley, and with music and lyrics by five-time Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles, Waitress tells the story of small-town diner waitress and pie-making genius Jenna (played by the dynamite Desi Oakley), who dreams of escaping her disappointing life and her abusive husband by winning a pie-making contest with a $20,000 prize. The hitch is that Jenna has gotten herself knocked up, and by her husband no less. As Jenna struggles to save money to get herself to the contest, and to feel any connection with her baby and her impending motherhood, she connects a shade too well with her new OB-GYN, a married big city doctor who brings out the reckless side of Jenna. But as her due date, and the contest, get closer, Jenna has to decide what her future, and her child’s, will look like.
There would, of course, be approximately zero point in doing Waitress if the lead actress wasn’t up to snuff—it’s a challenging role, requiring not only vocal chops but acting ones as well. Thankfully, Desi Oakley is up to the challenge. She’s phenomenal, giving a warm, nuanced performance that breathes life and depth into her character and showcases many different facets to the role. And not only the serious aspects—she has a dry, deadpan humor and a gift for physical comedy as well. Vocally, Oakley has a slightly deeper, throatier sound than Jessie Mueller (who debuted the role in workshops in 2014, and won a Drama Desk Award and a Tony during the show’s Broadway run). She shines throughout, but her performance of the show’s big emotional ballad, “She Used to Be Mine,” absolutely brought the house down.
Oakley’s a tough act to follow, but the rest of the cast are no slouches. In less talented hands, Jenna’s co-workers and best friends could come off as a bit clichéd—quirky Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) and brassy Becky (Charity Angel Dawson). But both actresses manage to ground their characters with real emotion. Dawson, although playing for laughs throughout the first act, opens Act II clashing with Jenna in “I Didn’t Plan It,” and it’s a welcome chance for the audience to really hear her. The two men in Jenna’s life are polar opposites. Her husband, Earl (Nick Bailey), manages the impressive feat of being both more unlikeable, but somehow a hint more sympathetic, than the character in the original film. Bailey gets across the sense of a good ol’ boy gone to seed, but doesn’t shy away from the character’s neediness or his violence, and he brings a nice dose of rock to the vocals on his only number, “You Will Still Be Mine.”
Bryan Fenkart as Dr. Pomatter, Jenna’s doctor and eventual lover, is a walking collection of tics and neuroses, but the whole performance adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. He and Oakley spark nicely off one another, and Fenkart’s performance is almost enough to make you want to let Pomatter off the hook for cheating on his wife with Jenna. And stealing practically every scene he’s in is Jeremy Morse as Ogie, Dawn’s persistent suitor; Morse is an incredibly talented physical performer, and had the audience in stiches more than once. Larry Marshall is charmingly cantankerous as the diner’s owner—and most finicky customer—Joe, who has a soft spot for Jenna. And Ryan G. Dunkin as diner manager Cal brings some real comedic flair to a smaller role.
Indeed, the actors oftentimes surpass the material; the musical has some truly show-stopping numbers, but some songs are on the forgettable side. But that’s a feeling for the car ride home; you’re not feeling it in the moment, with the actors giving it their all. While the orchestration was tight and well-performed, there were some issues with volume. The actors were individually mic’d, but still occasionally struggled to be heard over the music, especially in the first act. Having a portion of the music performed onstage (as a “band” occupying the diner’s back corner) occasionally emphasized that issue, but it was more of a problem in the larger ensemble numbers than in smaller numbers. The set is minimal, but meticulously detailed, and the transitions from location to location were seamless. The choreography isn’t perhaps overly ambitious, but was crisply performed by the entire ensemble.
Whether you’re looking to dive in to the full Waitress experience, donning a “Sugar, Butter, Flour” baby-T while sipping a signature pie-themed cocktail, or just looking to enjoy a talented cast in a sweet, high-spirited musical, this touring performance has everything you’re looking for. Hope you bring your sweet tooth.