Jessie Nelson (Book): Sara Bareilles (Music & Lyrics)
Every day she bakes twenty-seven pies, including one each day that she creates as a new recipe on the spot – pies with names like Big Guy Strawberry, Polka Dot Peach, Lost Shepard’s, and Deep (Shit) Blueberry. At Joe’s Pie Diner where everyone wants once again to know “What’s Inside,” Jenna is rolling out another crust and filling it with plenty of sugar, singing somewhere between dreamingly and wistfully, “My whole life is in here.”
So opens Waitress, the Jessie Nelson (book) and Sara Bareilles (music and lyrics) delicious musical that continues to pack them in on Broadway since its 2016 opening and is also in the midst of a national tour, landing now at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre. The main ingredients baked into this musical based on the 2007 movie by the same name include our apron-wearing heroine, Jenna, who sings with buttery beauty; her crusty co-worker, Helen, with tart remarks aplenty; her other waitress pal, cream-puff sweet Dawn stirred with much anxiety; and Cal, the salty, over-sized cook whose bitter bite is more show than real. Whipping in an appetizing mixture of music flavored with hints of pop, country, and ballad (all played by an outstanding, onstage band of six conducted by Lilli Wosk), Waitress is a dished-up dessert that is filled to the brim with domestic dilemmas, surprise romances, heart-warming friendships, and just enough fun and funny to make this pie a pleasant-tasting offering.
With past starring roles in Wicked, Finding Netherland, and Rent, Broadway’s Christine Dwyer is an immediately likeable, clearly talented in all respects, Jenna. As she bakes and sings (“What Baking Can Do”) she remembers with soft, silky tones a mother who taught her all she knows about baking and dreams with sustained notes of increasing hope of a life where she does not continue to live in an abusive relationship, as did her mom. With scenes of her father beating her mother still cropping up in her moments of baking alone, she must deal with a brute of a husband, Earl (a repulsively convincing Matt DeAngelis), who daily takes her tips, drills her why there are not more, and then downs his beer amidst growled threats and glaring but lust-filled eyes.
After Jenna and her waitress sisters discover in the café’s bathroom that she is pregnant – the self-test result sung in “The Negative” that leads to Jenna’s final reaction of “Shit” – Jenna finds herself in a doctor’s office to meet the handsome but hilariously boyish and awkward, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart). When she presents the “I-never-eat-sugar” doctor with a tempting Marshmallow Mermaid pie, the two employ enough mixed metaphors in their duet “It Only Takes a Taste” for us soon to understand that more than pie is the subject of their sung, first-time tête-á-tête:
“It only takes a taste when you know it’s good
Sometimes one bite is more than enough
To know you want more of the thing you just got a taste of.”
As her pregnancy blossoms, so does the attraction between doctor and patient – both married by the way. The two try to convince themselves in “Bad Idea” that their relationship is just that, but their cat-and-mouse dance around the examination table ends up on top with more than just the patient. More denying and more efforts to keep their doctor/patient distance runs counter to the gorgeously sung duet, “You Matter to Me,” where his tenor easily lifts to expressive, soft falsetto to combine so naturally with her underlying notes of equal beauty. Ms. Dwyer and Mr. Fenkart play with masterful moves and often funny results the magnetic attraction/repulsion game where heart/lust and brains/morals are in constant conflict – until they are not.
Watching their cat-and-mouse game is Nurse Norma (Rheaume Crenshaw), clearly disapproving with her loud huffs, puffs, and snide one-liners but still more than willing to enjoy Jenna’s calling-card pies.
Other romances are also baking in the oven; and each is just as unlikely. Chief among these is between a frenzied, always nervous Dawn (played with shrill by Jessie Shelton) and her online, blind date Ogie, who shows up at the café after their previous night’s first, five-minute date to steal the show and eventually Dawn’s reluctant heart. As the oddball Ogie, Jeremy Morse easily receives the night’s biggest laugh-filled applause as he jumps, stomps, screams, and sings his way into Dawn’s life in “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.” Their love becomes sealed when he reveals he has played Paul Revere in American Revolution reenactments, something the Betsy Ross in her can relate. When they later sing a hilariously staged “I Love You Like a Table,” the quirky sounding voices of both blend perfectly for a union sure to come soon.
Advice to Jenna on how she needs to leave Earl before her baby arrives comes from varied sources. The aged curmudgeon and owner of the diner, Joe, is played with an outer hard crust by Larry Marshall but with increasing signs of a soft interior and some wise words for his favored waitress, Jenna. Both he and Becky encourage her to enter a pie-baking contest with a first prize of twenty grand (and thus a ticket to escape the abusive Earl).
Anastacia McCleskey brings her commanding vocals to bear in “I Didn’t Plan It” for a jarring wake-up call that Becky gives Jenna: “Look around you, ain’t no saints her, baby; we’re all just looking for a little less crazy.” Like old Joe, her outside brusqueness combined with oft-bawdy remarks to hide a heart bigger than sky-high meringue.
We see that heart in moments like the mesmerizing trio she sings with Jenna and Dawn, “A Soft Place to Land,” where their individually sung lines flow in repeated rounds into beautifully blended harmonies. “You have a dream is a soft place to land, may we all be so lucky” is just one of many examples where the lyrics and music of songwriter/actress Sara Bareilles work so well to make Waitress much better than one might expect from yet another movie-based musical.
A diner full of all the trimmings from cubby-holed kitchen to multi-layered tables full of hungry patron) is part of the main set designed by Scott Pask. Other scenic elements from Jenna’s pie-making, shelf-encased corner to her drab, clearly unhappy apartment appear/disappear seamlessly. A scenic backdrop of a cloud-enriched Southern sky is painted with a lighting design by Ken Billington that provides dawn’s hope even when the storms of the story are most threatening and even when the tilted shadows of windows in the apartment suggest no hope of escape. Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s costumes help define a southern, small-town collection of personalities that are often stock in nature but unique with touches that make them memorable. Director Diane Paulus combines forces with Music Director Robert Cookman to blend musicians and acting ensemble into an orchestra of sorts of instruments and clapping hands that provides effective, mood-setting/altering backgrounds to the story.
There is nothing that feels like ‘this is just a touring version’ of the Waitress now at SHN’s Golden Gate. From set to sound to staging, Waitress has that Broadway look and appeal with a cast that sells itself in song and portrayals and a story that is a good mix of funny (even silly), romantic, hard-hitting, and uplifting.
Rating: 4.5 E
Waitress continues through November 11, 2018 at 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.
Photo Credits: Tim Trumble