Waitress presents itself as an adult musical about life's gritty realities. Adultery is rampant, because people have needs. A character gets pregnant, and feels ambiguous about it. A central storyline deals with the cycle of domestic abuse.
For all this hard-edged sophistication, though, the show is maddeningly forgiving toward characters it deems sympathetic. Maybe, in that respect, it's too realistic.
It certainly makes for an unusual evening at the theater, and one that often feels fresh and entertaining. Scoring her first musical, singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles delivers a set of real songs — in contrast to the uninspired musical gestures that often pass as songs in other new musicals. Her compositions here are melodic, textured, and varied. The comic numbers rollick, while ballads like "She Used to Be Mine" build to climaxes, sometimes soaring ones, that they earn rather than simply declaring.
When it debuted on Broadway last year, Waitress had the distinction of being the first musical to hit the Great White Way with women serving as composer, playwright (Jessie Nelson), director (Diane Paulus), and choreographer (Lorin Latarro). It earned four Tony nominations, but in the year of Hamilton, wins were hard for anyone not associated with that also-historic show to come by.
Adapted from the 2007 film starring Keri Russell, Waitress centers on Jenna, played by Desi Oakley in the touring production now at the Orpheum Theatre. She's a server at a pastry-centric diner in a small southern town, and in what might be the first onstage bathroom stall pregnancy test in Broadway history, Jenna discovers she's expecting a child. The father is her husband, an emotionally abusive prick who, of course, is named Earl (Nick Bailey).
Jenna decides to carry the pregnancy to term ("not that I judge," she says when abortion is alluded to), which necessitates regular visits to Jim (Bryan Fenkart), the handsome young new OB/GYN in town. The two begin an affair, literally on the examining table as the physician grabs the stirrups in ecstasy.
Sound a little problematic? Yep, but Waitress dismisses that with a glib song about how the hookup is a "pretty good bad idea." Jenna is more concerned about the fact that Jim is married...and, of course, so is she.
The show also isn't going to be too hard on Ogie, the history geek who shows up at the diner after a date that leaves Jenna's coworker Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) cringing. Jenna and the gang decide that Dawn needs to give Ogie another chance, leading to the spectacle of the very talented Jeremy Morse performing a show-stopping comedy number that's essentially about stalking his way into Dawn's heart.
Does Jenna finally kick Earl to the curb? Does motherhood have a transformative impact on her life and choices? Will the doc leave his wife and/or turn himself in to the AMA? And what about that big pie-baking contest? As all of this gets worked out, there's a lot about Waitress that will leave you blinking, and not necessarily because of tears.
That said, from moment to moment, Waitress is one of the most engaging Broadway shows to hit the road in recent years. Nelson's script earns consistent roars of laughter, with its sassy quips and witty physical comedy. The show flows smoothly along as Scott Pask's attractive set elements whisk in and out of place, and the affectionate depiction of baking as an emotional outlet resonates.
Though Waitress asks us to swallow too much, the show establishes Bareilles as a real gift to musical theater. Here's hoping her relationship with Broadway is longer and healthier than the entanglements that unfold at Joe's Pie Diner.
IF YOU GO:
Now through November 26
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