Theater Preview: WAITRESS (National Tour at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre)

by Eve Meadows on August 4, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

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SWEET AS PIE, FLAKY AS CRUST, OR BOTH?

If the heat in the kitchen is getting you down, you may want to head on over to Hollywood, where the Broadway hit Waitress arrived last night for a limited four-week at the Pantages Theatre August 3-26, 2018, and then continuing on tour after that through the end of the year. Designed by an all-female creative team and featuring Jessie Mueller in its 2016 premiere, it received a Tony nomination for Best Musical (but that was the year of Hamilton).

A sensation on Broadway (where it’s currently playing with Katherine McPhee), Waitress was inspired by the film of the same name, written by Adrienne Shelly, whose lamentable murder prior to the film’s release made national headlines. With tongue-in-cheek humor, the film explores the quiet desperation of an unhappily pregnant greasy-spoon server. It doesn’t shy away from facing heavy subjects head-on, including domestic abuse, adultery, and the feeling that women should put the needs of men before their own desires. Although it has a happy ending, it steers into the skids along the way.

The musical skirts around the much of the grit. With a book by Jessie Nelson and music & lyrics by Sara Bareilles, director Diane Paulus opted to concentrate on the heartfelt aspects, with stellar musical numbers and tray after tray of creatively inspiring pies. Waitress will no doubt have both fans and detractors. Some will find this treatment simply scrumptious; others may come close to diabetic shock (pocket pies are sold in the lobby). Even though the huge Pantages Theatre is far too big for the show’s design, the production gets big tips for its cheeky working girl ethos, bawdy humor, and a soaring song about self-discovery, “She Used to Be Mine.”

When waitress and pie expert Jenna (Desi Oakly) encounters an obstacle or fascinating situation, she creates a pie to match the experience with ingredients ranging from succulent dark chocolate and glamorous spices to bizarre vegetables and other items you most likely will not find at Kroger’s (although Los Angeles is brimming with specialty foods now). Each time, Paulus has the working-class ensemble smoothly swirl ingredients around Jenna’s cooking trance with dance-like finesse.

At the Podunk Joe’s Pie Diner where she waits tables and bakes pies daily, plenty of pie-inspiring people appear to Jenna: What to make for her OB-GYN, Dr. Pomatter (the awkwardly romantic and fetching Bryan Fenkhart)? What will de-stress her when dealing with her abusive husband Earl (Nick Bailey)? Etc. Even with thinly drawn characters, the heart of the show lies with the diner’s triptych of waitresses: Along with Jenna, who has an affair with Dr. Pomatter, we have the secondary Becky (a bold and charming Charity Angél Dawson), who — having a so-so marriage with an infirm, older man — proffers a persuasive justification for her own unfaithfulness in “I Didn’t Plan It,” a terrific song. Shy, nervous, quirky Dawn (flappable Lenne Klingaman) is stunned by the crazy success of a five-minute date with the self-absorbed but equally goofy Ogie (the frantic, uproarious, and scene-stealing Jeremy Morse) who sings the bizarrely dippy athletic love song, “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” the audience favorite.

Becky is attracted to the big cook Cal (affable Ryan G. Dunkin whose physical humor is strangely flat), who stays on top of his waitresses to keep the customers satisfied, and then bobbles around with that special satisfied smile he never expected to wear.

Despite the wildly shifting tones between abusive domestic melodrama and embellished, clownish behavior (the second act in particular undergoes sudden head-scratching character changes, wrapping up the plot too meticulously), Waitress holds together — enjoyably so. Scott Pask’s sets evocatively imagine the show’s unnamed American South small-town setting, and they glide seamlessly into place, including the bandstand that features a talented sextet led by conductor/pianist Nadia DiGiallonardo. As usual on opening night at this beautiful but ginormous venue, the band’s overpowering volume made it hard to hear all the lyrics.

Though not perfect, Waitress walks the line between musical revue in the vein of Pump Boys and Dinettes and a musical drama about challenges faced by proletariat American women. Go for Bareilles’ melodious pop score and the commanding thespians. But better bring along some salt to balance out all the sugar.

photos by Joan Marcus

Waitress
national tour
for tickets, call 800-982-2787
or visit Hollywood Pantages
ends in L.A. on August 26, 2018
national tour continues
for dates, cities, and more info, visit Waitress

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