In Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson’s stage musical adaptation of the feature film Waitress, there’s a purity and innocence baked into the sweet story which follows, like the title suggests, a small-town waitress who unexpectedly gets pregnant from her abusive husband and escapes reality by baking spectacularly quirky pies and develops a relationship with her so-dorky-that-he’s-charming doctor. But rumbling through this musical’s sun-kissed score is a story about the treatment of women —especially now. Once the musical reconciles the toxic bitterness of that unfortunate and all-too-familiar story of abuse, the sweetness of the musical becomes even sweeter, giving a story of female empowerment, choice, and removing horrible people out of your life and surrounding yourself with a foundation of support so that you can live your best life.
The history behind the Waitress film gives more emotional nuance considering the unfortunate circumstances in which it premiered. Adrienne Shelly, the film’s writer/director/star of the film, was murdered before its premiere at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival where it would land at Fox Searchlight Pictures. The film, which also starred Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, and Cheryl Hines, went on to garner acclaim from critics and audiences alike. Fast-forward to 2015 and the film took the stage in musical form thanks to Bareilles and Nelson, earning four Tony Award nominations and blazing a trail as the first Broadway show created by a team of women.
In its first touring production, Waitress takes residency at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Pantages Theater from now until Aug. 26. Waitress marks Bareilles’ first musical and the Grammy-nominated artist puts her signature strolling musical panache on the adaptation, making for an even-handed and honey-dipped score that is modern with pop sensibilities and has the perfect amount of fairytale folksy charm. With Bareilles’ musicality, she has a pitch-perfect style that matches the musical’s style — right down to the small-town diner artistic direction. If was as if she was born to write Waitress.
Desi Oakley, who plays the titular waitress Jenna, brings Bareilles’ music and lyrics to life with her vulnerability and a buttery voice. From the jump, when she is kneading, mixing and baking, Oakley is a singing wonder cut from the cloth of Bareilles-style chanteuses. Her singing shows a wide range with the introductory intimate opening lyrics to “What’s Inside” and then culminates in the second act when she hits some high notes with the song “She Used to Be Mine” and ushers us to the finale.
As Oakley commands the stage and is phenomenal in the role of Jenna, she is surrounded by a supporting cast that is harmonious in both chemistry and music. Her ride-or-die crew of fellow waitresses Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) and Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) are in service to Jenna, but go off to have storylines of their own — more Dawn than Becky. Like the movie, quirky Dawn meets the man of her life with eccentric poet Ogie (Jeremy Morse), whose silly relationship of Civil War reenactments and nerd-love (which is best illustrated with the song “I Love You Like a Table”) service as a comedic counterpoint to the heaviness of Jenna’s abusive relationship. Dawson’s Becky has plenty to do — but it seems mostly in service to Jenna. Dawson’s pipes are showcased in only one number, “I Didn’t Plan It”, where she takes full advantage of the spotlight. Other than that, she is regulated to sassy wisecracks and a “will-they-won’t-they” relationship with Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), the gruff, bandana-clad teddy bear of a short order cook at Joe’s Pie Diner. Even though Dawson shined at every moment, I wanted more Becky.
The musical’s heart beats loudest during “A Soft Place to Land”, a moving, stripped-down acoustic number where the trio of women sing of achieving the impossible. Harmoniously Oakley, Klingaman, and Dawson warm up the stage with the lyrics: “A dream needs believing/To taste like the real thing”, which stir with emotion and give a moral backbone of hope to this beautifully told story of women who are trying her best not to lose hope in themselves and not to take B.S. from anyone.
It is without a doubt, like the movie, this story is all about the women. The men are merely there to service the women or move their arcs forward. Jenna’s husband, Earl (Nick Bailey) is the epitome of fragile and toxic masculinity — so much that during the curtain call, Bailey came out with an apologetic smile and mouthed the words “I’m sorry” for playing such an a**hole. The two paint a picture of an abusive relationship between a man a woman that resonates in domestic relationships and folds into the #MeToo era. And although Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkhart) is the awkwardly nice guy we should be rooting for, he isn’t exactly the perfect man either. He cheats on his wife with Jenna and thinks nothing of it until Jenna has to say “no.” Earl and Dr. Pomatter’s roles in the movie are to make Jenna realize that she is better off on her own.
Waitress goes beyond the pies which, by the way, look incredibly delicious on stage. Oakley commands the stage with the ability to belt out arena-style notes and immediately after, deliver an intimate cabaret-style performance that feels like she is singing directly to you and no one else in the theater. As a frontwoman, she effortlessly carries the musical with a solid supporting cast. With its perfectly baked music and down-home feel, Waitress is the musical equivalent of a comforting hug — but also a swift kick in the crotch for toxic masculinity. It will make you smile with joy and leave you craving a slice of pie…any kind of pie.