Oh, those clever programmers over at the Segerstrom Center.
They knew we’d all have Thanksgiving on our minds this week, and what do they present us with? A musical that’s all about delicious pies, the joys of baking, and the fellowship that results when creating comfort food for loved ones. It’s impossible to see a giant image of a cherry pie on the stage curtain as you enter Segerstrom Hall without thinking, “Oh yeah, I need to buy flour and eggs.”
“Waitress,” based on the 2007 indie hit film of the same name, also has more complicated virtues. In a clear-eyed way it examines the hell of bad relationships, the difficulty of escaping them, and the unpredictable and sometimes misguided trajectory of Cupid’s arrow. (That’s why its “everybody’s happy” ending seems a little forced.)
“Waitress” opened on Broadway in 2016 to so-so reviews and it didn‘t nab any major awards, but the show has its fans. It’s still running in New York after more than 1,000 performances.
It’s not the story that makes “Waitress” a Broadway success. Jessie Nelson’s book, based (with a few small changes) on Adrienne Shelly’s script for the film, can seem by the numbers and predictable, with the kind of stock supporting characters that have populated every Broadway musical since “Show Boat.”
Jenna (Christine Dwyer) is a waitress who works at Joe’s Pie Diner, a homey place located in a small town somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line. She is enduring a loveless marriage to Earl (Matt DeAngelis), a brutish man who frequently gets angry and abusive and robs her of her daily tip money. (DeAngelis, stuck with a two-dimensional part, can’t do much to make Earl rise above southern-fried caricature.)
At Joe’s, Jenna is responsible for making pies, and she’s a genius at it. She learned the art from her late mother, also trapped in an abusive marriage, who kept young Jenna in the kitchen and away from her monster of a dad. As quirky as she is inventive, Jenna invents whimsical names for her pies that amuse and occasionally perplex her culinary fans. They include Joe (Larry Marshall, crusty yet loveable), who owns the diner and is exacting about his order but generous with his tips.
Jenna longs to escape her marriage and her humdrum hometown. Joe and others encourage her to enter a pie-making contest with a $20,000 prize. But her dreams are dashed when she gets pregnant. Her best buddies, nerdy Dawn and brash Beckie (Jessie Shelton and Maiesha McQueen), are supportive. Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), the restaurant’s manager and cook, is less thrilled.
Things get even more fraught for Jenna when her new physician, Dr. Pomatter (Steven Good), turns out to be a handsome man about her age. Despite his best efforts to keep things professional, the sparks fly (helped along by one of Jenna’s pies, of course), and in this unlikely universe the examining table makes a convenient spot for a tryst.
From here on the plot is full of spoilers (at least for those who have never seen the film), but rest assured Nelson leaves no cliché unexamined. It’s always painful to watch talented performers trying to squeeze substance out of underwritten parts. “Waitress” contains its share of those moments.
But there are quite a few redeeming scenes in this show, too, and that’s mainly because of the songs. Sara Bareilles has never written a Broadway musical before, but singer-songwriter veteran, who’s been nominated for six Grammy Awards, has a knack for penning songs that capture the moment and add to our understanding of the characters.
“She Used to Be Mine,” sung solo by Jenna late in the second act, is a heartbreaking rumination on the woman she has unwittingly become as she waits for her unplanned baby to arrive:
She’s imperfect, but she tries,
She is good, but she lies
She is hard on herself
She is broken and won’t ask for help
At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Bareilles can pen a silly tune that brings the house down. As Ogie, the super-nerd who falls for Dawn, Jeremy Morse goes full-on nut-ball in “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” a song that could seem creepy if delivered the wrong way. In Morse’s hands, it’s the comic high point of the show.
Bareilles worked with a cherry-picked band to create the arrangements for the songs. The orchestration is artful and occasionally brilliant – country- and blues-tinged but like Bareilles’ songs, stylistically unique. (Naming her influences is a fun game. Fiona Apple? Alison Krause? Shawn Colvin? Billy Joel? Yes and no.)
The leading women make this touring production watchable and listenable. Dwyer, who was a replacement Elphaba in the Broadway production of “Wicked,” brings tremendous empathy and a soulful voice to Jenna. McQueen gets most of the show’s biggest laughs as Becky, and her timing is impeccable. Shelton has mastered a tricky combination in her portrayal as Dawn: nerdy but sexy.
“Waitress” plays through Nov. 25. I have two pieces of advice if you’re planning to see it. Get some of your Thanksgiving baking done first. And eat a piece of pie just before curtain, or you’ll be stopping at Marie Callender’s or Polly’s Pies on the way home.
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at email@example.com.