Waitress – Theatre Review: National Touring production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

When expert pie-maker and waitress Jenna (an outstanding Christine Dwyer with a dynamic voice) either concocts or fantasizes the recipe for a new pie, the lights change and an almost other-worldly voice sings the pie’s first ingredient: “Sugar.” And depending on her mood, the waitress gives each pie an individual name, such as “My Eggs Have Trapped Me Pie,” or “My Husband’s a Jerk Chicken Pot Pie.

It’s never mentioned exactly where, but somewhere in the deep south, just off a long, lonely looking highway, sits Joe’s Pie Diner. It’s where Jenna works along with two other waitresses, the sassy Becky (on opening night, swing, Tatiana Lofton) and the bespectacled, ditsy Dawn (a hugely likable Lenne Klingaman). Once Jenna’s thoughts for a new recipe are interrupted by the diner’s boss, the gruff Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), it’s back to work, but on this particular day, Jenna remains distracted, plus there’s that early morning sickness. Though she doesn’t want to know, both Becky and Dawn insist Jenna takes a home pregnancy test, just in case. It’s positive.

Jenna blames it on the red dress she was wearing that night, the sparkly one. After a night with her abusive and insensitive husband, Earl (Nick Bailey) the waitress is now saddled with an unwanted pregnancy, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time, though in truth, with her marriage, any time is the worse time. How does she handle the news? By concocting the recipe for a new pie. “I’m calling it, I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie,” she declares.

Based on the 2007 film of the same name by the late writer and actor Adrienne Shelly, who also played Dawn in the movie, director Diana Paulus’ Waitress the musical, now playing at ASU Gammage until October 7, follows all the same plot points as the screenplay but changes the overall tone. There’s drama when the scenes move to Jenna’s home-life, where each night, the perpetually angry and virtually unemployable Earl forces his hard-working wife to hand over the daily tips, but the scenes at the diner up the comedy level, often to the extreme.

There’s a lot that’s funny, but there’s a lot that’s extremely broad, the kind of comedy variety hall comedians of a bygone era once employed. At a time when there were no microphones or amplification to sell a joke, performers would have to exaggerate their physical comedy in order to get the laughs, unlike today where a comedian can simply hold the mic, stand, and talk. In Waitress, it’s the combination of drama with an overall feeling of sadness at Jenna’s home followed by the unexpected broad gestures of the comedy at the diner that makes things often feel silly and unbalanced.

The broadest of all is Dawn’s blind-date boyfriend, Ogie (Jeremy Morse), a caricature of a man whose supply of caffeine clearly never quits. Ogie has a very different idea of how the first date with Dawn went; he feels he’s met his soul mate, she never wants to see him again. His high energy, pushing-it-to-the-limit number, Never Ever Getting Rid of Me, is played for slapstick laughs, ending with the need for him to calm down and pull out an inhaler. It may be over the top – way over the top – but from the lengthy, riotous applause Morse received on his exit, it also works for audiences, and both the song and the character are undeniably the crowd-pleasing favorites of the show.

Also intentionally funnier than conceived in the film is Jenna’s OB/GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart), the medical man with whom Jenna ends up having an affair. Seduced by the taste of one of her pies, the good doctor uses all of his nervous energy and the quirky moves of a mime artist to get her attention on a more personal level. After an impulsive kiss on Jenna’s part, both parties feel the urge to step away from the frustration of their home lives to be with each other, secretly stealing every private moment they can to have sex – and creatively eat pie – in the doctor’s office. While Ogie’s song may be the crowd favorite, it’s the humorous duet It Only Takes a Taste performed by Jenna and the doctor while seated on a bench waiting for a bus that steals the show. With clever lyrics and its conversational style, it’s the most theatrically satisfying number in the production.

As with the film’s conclusion, while the story’s ending wraps things up in an unlikely and convenient manner, writer Jessie Nelson’s new book for the live version is consistently witty giving ample chances for the impertinent Becky and Dr. Pomatter’s assistant, Nurse Norma (Fheaume Crenshaw) to volley sarcasm at every opportunity. When Becky asks her fellow waitresses, “Is my left boob hanging down? I’m looking like something Picasso would have made,” it may have nothing to do with anything, but it’s a funny sounding line. And for some reason, recognizable name-dropping of products always make an ordinary comment sound more amusing than it really is. When husband Earl tells Jenna why his boss complained that Earl was late for work yet again, he states, “Don’t blame the line at Taco Bell on me.”

Scenes zip effectively from one set to another with a speed that can leave you breathless. And while this current national touring production has cast all characters well, the one star you never see becomes the real stand out. Singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles may not be on stage but her presence is felt throughout. Her pop/rock score with its upbeat, catchy hooks, all presented with a theatrical panache, elevates the show to a far more entertaining level than the film ever achieved. Through song, she’s truly captured the spirit of the frustrations of working people seemingly stuck in dead-end jobs and how it feels to be there, including the fantasies of what they would like to do should they ever escape. And enjoy the singer’s unique recorded message at the beginning of the show. Using her original song Cassiopeia, Bareilles has rewritten the lyrics to remind the audience to turn off their cell phones. You’ll be applauding before the show has even begun.

The National Touring production of Waitress continues at ASU Gammage until October 7

Pictures courtesy of Joan Markus

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