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Broadway Series’ “Waitress”, Initially Served Luke-warm, Comes Back Piping Hot

Review by Dr. Sheldon Polonsky of Waitress: Broadway in Cincinnati

Desi Oakley, Charity Angel Dawson and Lenne Klingaman in “Waitress”

I confess that at intermission I was feeling on the fence about the Aronoff’s latest Broadway touring production, Waitress. The story, based on the 2007 independent movie of the same name, is charming enough: Jenna (Desi Oakley) is a small town waitress at a southern diner, trapped in a loveless marriage with her selfish and immature husband, Earl (Nick Bailey), but finds joy baking pies with creative names and ingredients reflective of her emotions and inner joys and struggles, like her “Betrayed By My Eggs” pie which she whips up when she discovers she has an unwanted pregnancy. Jenna yearns to get out of her current life by saving money to enter an upcoming baking contest, while at the same time entertaining an affair with her earnest but married gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart).

The first half of Waitress checked off all the musical theatre boxes, and did so well, with a talented, energetic cast, tuneful songs with clever lyrics, and plenty of well-timed comic touches. But somehow I couldn’t quite find its soul, and the story seemed somewhat shallow. Jenna’s pregnancy seemed like no more than a plot device, Earl‘s brutishness was glossed over and seemed to trivialize the real experience of domestic abuse, and as a physician myself I found myself squirming in my seat at the rather cavalier way an inappropriate in-office doctor/patient sexual encounter was portrayed. This is 2018, after all—did no one get the memo?
Suddenly, however, in the second half, the show decisively found its center. It was like the preheating timer had gone off on the oven and the real baking was beginning. Perhaps, even, the saccharine nature of the first half was a deliberate set-up. Actions began to have consequences and the facade of the musical theater conventions was lifted to reveal real people and problems. Old Joe, the curmudgeony owner and patron of the diner, became the show’s moral compass. If ultimately there was a contrived happy ending, it was none of the ones you were expecting and fairly inconsequential compared to the very genuine and spontaneous epiphany of empowerment, responsibility, and self-awareness that preceded it. Kudos to director Diane Paulus  (who also directed the recent Finding Neverland, and won a Tony for her revival of Pippin) for helping elevate this story to another level.
All of this was artfully conveyed by a top-notch cast. Desi Oakley, as Jenna,  of course, is the linchpin and in addition to having spectacular vocal ability was an engaging actress. The real charm of the show, though, was its large cast of quirky and endearing supporting characters, all of whom get their moments to steal the show. Charity Angel Dawson and Lenne Klingaman, playing Jenna’s fellow waitresses, the wise-cracking Becky and the mousy Dawn, were thoroughly entertaining  (Klingaman‘s bio in the playbill states she had a record-breaking run as Hamlet in Colorado Shakes–that’s a performance I want to see!). Bryan Fenkart as Jenna’s doctor had perfect comic timing and also helped transcend his character’s initially buffoonish personality. Jeremy Morse as Ogie, Dawn’s boyfriend, brings the house down with his comic number.  Even Larry Marshall, as Joe, has a surprisingly tender and heartwarming number in the second half.
The music and lyrics, by Sara Bareilles, while not particularly memorable, are none the less joyous and evocative with some country/western and pop elements, powerfully performed by a wonderful  band who are included at various points on the set to good effect. The projection of the highway behind the diner, with its ever changing lighting reflecting the time of day, provides a poignant backdrop to Jenna’s community.
While researching the source movie, I was dismayed to read that writer, director and co-star Adrienne Shelly was murdered months before it premiered at the Sundance festival. This musical version of the movie, which was meant to be a love-letter to her own daughter, is a fitting tribute to a talent cut short all too soon. So here’s a tip for the tip jar—head over to the Aronoff for a big slice of Inspiration with a dollop of Hope and see Waitress.
Waitress runs through January 21st at the Aranoff center. Tickets are available at Broadway in
Cincinnati website, www.cincinnatiarts.org.