The national tour of WAITRESS has arrived in Chicago, and it’s serving up a production that’s sweet as pie. Based on the late Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film of the same name, WAITRESS made history as the first Broadway musical with an all-female creative team. With music and lyrics from Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles and book by Jessie Nelson, WAITRESS deals with some heavy issues (most notably domestic abuse) at its core. The material always treats these issues with a lighter touch, though the show is never dismissive. With direction by Diane Paulus, the end result means that WAITRESS ultimately uplifts rather than downtrods, and it supplies ample laughs along the way.
Bareilles’s score fits the musical well. The overall mellow tone of the music, played by a capable band onstage, fits WAITRESS’s small-town setting. The numbers also nicely develop character, as further enhanced by the performances of the tour cast. The one element that doesn’t quite fit are Bareilles’s atmospheric musical interludes, which I don’t think add much (nor do choreographer Lorin Latarazzo’s corresponding interpretative dance moves). Overall WAITRESS is thoroughly enjoyable listening that will tug at your heartstrings.
Production-wise, this first national tour pulls out all the stops. Scott Pask’s set design retains the delightful rotating pie displays from Broadway that flank either side of the stage. Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s costume designs provide a pleasing array of colors to go along with the vibrant set.
Desi Oakley brings a unique touch to the lead role of Jenna, the titular waitress who daydreams about different pie recipes and longs to break free from her abusive husband, Earl. Oakley’s acting approach is rather understated, and she brings out the character’s inner sass nicely. Yet her emotions are real, particularly as we watch Jenna struggle with news of her pregnancy; Jenna longs to escape her past, but she finds that this development may reel her back in. Oakley’s singing is simply stunning, and she makes the complexities in Bareilles’s score seem easy as pie. She also finds a beautiful mix of peaks and valleys in her 11 o’clock ballad “She Used To Be Mine,” which is the centerpiece of the score and show. Lenne Klingaman is spectacularly daffy as Jenna’s best friend Dawn. She’s legitimately likable and quirky without being over the top. Charity Angel Dawson also has well-honed comedic timing as Becky, the third in this trio of friends. Together, these three actors have a natural rapport that forms what is arguably the most important set of relationships in WAITRESS. They also sing spectacularly together, as evidenced by their performance in “A Soft Place to Land.”
The other key players in the cast give equally delicious performances. Nick Bailey is appropriate slimy as Earl, and he makes the skin crawl to the extent that I found it hard to applaud for him at the end of the show. And while Bailey’s performance is downright creepy, he also shows us that underneath Earl is a weak and insecure man who is no match for Jenna. Bryan Fenkhart makes a lovably awkward Dr. Pomatter, playing the role as even more eccentric than what I saw on Broadway. And though this Dr. Pomatter is unquestionably weird, it’s also easy to see why Jenna would find him so irresistible. I’d also be remiss not to mention Jeremy Morse as Dawn’s love interest, Ogie. Morse quite literally stole the show with his Act One delivery of “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” infusing a huge burst of energy following a more gentle moment. Morse is also a magnificent physical comedian, and he and Klingerman play off each other wonderfully.
WAITRESS supplies an entirely satisfying summer theater treat that musical theater lovers won’t want to miss.
WAITRESS plays through July 22 at Broadway In Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph. Tickets are $27-$105. BroadwayInChicago.com
Photo by Joan Marcus