Waitress

by Kevin Taft

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday August 6, 2018

Charity Angél Dawson, Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman in the national tour of "Waitress." (Joan Marcus)
Charity Angél Dawson, Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman in the national tour of "Waitress." (Joan Marcus)  

Sara Bareilles' hit musical "Waitress" heats up the Hollywood Pantages stage, serving up a delightful mix of infectious tunes and charming characters that all go down as sweet as pie. Based on the motion picture by the late Adrienne Shelley, the film starred Keri Russell as Jenna, a waitress in an abusive marriage who finds herself pregnant and unsure how to move forward - especially after she falls for her doctor.

The stage version with music by the effervescent singer/songwriter Bareilles and a book by screenwriter Jessie Nelson ("I Am Sam"), utilizes the same story of Jenna (Desi Oakley), and amps up the characters of her co-workers Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) a sassy woman with an ill husband she's taking care of at home, and Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) a mousy girl terrified of dating. The three work in Joe's Pie Shop run by Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), the main chef and ruler of the roost. However, the actual owner Joe (Larry Marshall) stops in every day and takes a special liking to Jenna.

But Jenna finds herself in a conundrum when she discovers she is pregnant (via the song "The Negative") by her controlling husband Earl (Nick Bailey). She won't give up the baby, but she desperately wants to get away from Earl and has been hiding money away for years in the hopes of doing just that. She also dreams of winning a pie contest where she could add a cool twenty thousand to her savings.

But during her first prenatal visit, she finds out her longtime doctor has retired and a new physician, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart) has replaced her. Nervous and goofy, Pomatter convinces Jenna he's the man for the job and before long the two find themselves attracted to each other. But he's married as well and this causes even more complications.

The Tony nominated musical is full of lovely tunes that are both infectious ("Opening Up" "It Only Takes a Taste") and heartbreaking ("You Matter to Me" and the show-stopping "She Used to Be Mine"). Ogie (the hilarious Jeremy Morse) courts the nervous Becky with his goofy stand-out number "Never Getting Rid of Me" and Earl uses his rocker pipes to haunt with "You Will Still Be Mine."

While every song in the "Waitress" score is a winner, it is the book and source material that are a bit problematic. It might be picky, but there are aspects of the storytelling that feel lazy. For example, there are four characters in the film that are having affairs. With Jenna and Dr. Pomatter being the show's focal point, their dilemma should be the heart of the show. But when multiple other characters are having affairs, it feels like the writers just didn't know what to do with the other players. Furthermore, feisty Becky is a bit of a clich, not to mention that it's hard to side with a woman who isn't always dependable at work, but gives her boss attitude when he calls her out on it.

The actors mostly shine here, although Fenkart's characterization of Dr. Pomatter is a bit nutty and lacks a sexual energy that makes us feel Jenna would be drawn to him. He's such a physical comedian that he almost feels like a twin to Morse's Ogie who uses much physical comedy in his big crowd-pleasing number ("You're Never Getting Rid of Me.") Dawson (who played Nurse Norma on Broadway) works the Becky sass well and has some nice moments of empathy, but her big number ended up being a little screamy ("I Didn't Plan It") even though she has quite a set of pipes. Speaking of Nurse Norma, Maiesha McQueen is a standout, making the most out of a small role with impeccable comic timing.

But it really is Oakley as Jenna who shines here. Played originally by Tony-nominated Jessie Mueller on Broadway and followed by writer Bareilles, one might fear no one could replace either. But Oakley is astounding in both acting and her rich, heartfelt vocals. She nails her big number so much you almost just want to press repeat and watch her do it again.

For its few inconsistencies and small things that don't totally work, "Waitress" is still a terrific show. New musicals are made or broken by their score and it seems for every "Hamilton" and "Dear Evan Hansen" there are other shows whose music is sort of D.O.A. So it's a joy to experience a delicious musical you want to rush home and listen to the soundtrack for, bake the words into your brain, and spend hours in your car tasting the sweet lyrics and singing along.

"Waitress" runs through August 26th at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. For information and tickets visit www.hollywoodpantages.com.

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.