To step into Sarofim Hall for Waitress, brought to town for a weeklong engagement courtesy of Mischer Neurosciences Broadway at the Hobby Center, is to be confronted with a curtain of cherry pie. And is there anything more familiar and irresistible than a lattice pie crust, with plump red cherries peeking through? The real question, however, is just how far will a little pie get you?
Luckily for Jenna Hunterson, expert pie maker and the musical’s titular waitress, Mamet was right – “stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.” Thank goodness for Jenna, because she’s got stress everywhere but in the kitchen of Joe’s Pie Diner. Already trapped in an abusive marriage to Earl, a man who takes her tips, doesn’t let her drive and hates her friends (and that’s the nicer side of a man who has his own name tattooed on his chest in medieval font), Jenna unexpectedly finds out she’s pregnant. The diner’s owner, Joe himself, sees a newspaper story about a pie-making contest. The grand prize? $20,000. Jenna secretly begins stashing aside money to enter the contest and bake her way to a new life. But complicating matters is not only Earl, but her new doctor, Dr. Pomatter, whose wedding ring doesn’t stop her from embarking on a torrid affair with the gynecologist.
Based on a critically acclaimed 2007 film written and directed by Adrienne Shelly – and starring a post-Felicity, pre-Americans Keri Russell – Waitress sticks fairly close to its cinematic roots in terms of Jessie Nelson’s book. And the lively production, under the direction of Diane Paulus, stays true to the film’s quirky spirit. But it’s the music and lyrics from Sara Bareilles that really elevate the musical past its shortcomings (more on that later).
Bareilles shows incredible range, from toe-tapping ditties like “It Only Takes a Taste,” to the plucky pizzazz of “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” and the ethereal refrain of “sugar, butter, flour” that rings out when Jenna disappears into her thoughts. To truly appreciate Bareilles’s songs, however, depends on the cast, and the cast assembled here are the heroes of the hour.
The unnamed town in Waitress is populated by stock characters, some drawn more thinly than others but none receiving the attention they deserve in the book. Everyone works hard – and successfully – to bring great sincerity to their role, and it starts with Christine Dwyer as the sweet-as-pie voiced Jenna.
Dwyer is perfectly imperfect as Jenna, who’s often seen sitting perched, knees together and hands clasped in her lap while staring ahead. It’s a nice touch of physicality, as Jenna projects a certain “that’s that” attitude. Dwyer owns the night and brings down the house with Bareilles’s show-stopping ballad, “She Used to Be Mine.” Opposite Dwyer is Steven Good, who has mastered the “nice guy talky thing” as Dr. Pomatter. Matt DeAngelis has a thankless job as Jenna’s husband, Earl, one that he executes expertly, as evidenced by the crowd’s hesitation to applaud him at the musical’s end.
Jenna’s two best friends are Becky and Dawn, played by Tatiana Lofton and Jessie Shelton. Lofton’s Becky toes (if not crosses completely) the line into caricature, but she’s got strong comedic chemistry with Ryan G. Dunkin, who has gruff down pat as Cal. Shelton’s squeaky Dawn is immensely adorkable as an Urkel of sorts; she snorts when she laughs, lives alone in a studio apartment, and participates in historical re-enactments in her spare time. Shelton also kills it in “When He Sees Me.”
Jeremy Morse, whose Ogie arrives to woo Dawn and won’t take no for an answer (more on that later, too), may have the most fun character to play. And Ogie is quite the character – an amateur magician, clog dancer, asthmatic, and eater of only white foods on Wednesdays, to name a few of his traits. Morse high kicks and cartwheels his way into the audience’s heart with an impossibly energetic performance.
Richard Kline rounds out the main cast as demanding, horoscope-reading diner owner Joe, who shines while offering a little paternal comfort in “Take It From an Old Man.”
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Scott Pask’s nimble sets deftly transform from Joe’s Pie Diner, to Dr. Pomatter’s office, to the home Jenna unhappily shares with Earl and, eventually, a hospital room. Set pieces slide across the floor, maintaining a strong sense movement through the story that keeps the audience engaged. The true wonder of Pask’s set, however, is first glimpsed through a line of windows in Joe’s Pie Diner, with blinds that open to a vivid Midwestern landscape. Full of depth, open space and crossed with power lines, the horizon rises up into a beautiful photorealistic sky. Ken Billington’s lighting designs further bring to life Pask’s set, and Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s costumes – beginning with our main characters’ blue waitress uniforms and ending with some playful Betsy Ross and Paul Revere ensembles – complete the almost normal, but not quite world of Waitress.
And now for the promised more. Funnily enough, for a show that’s so pie-centric, the problem with Waitress is that it wants to have its cake and eat it, too. Nelson’s book wants the drama that comes from an abusive relationship, but not so serious that it would be incongruous with the musical’s often humorous tone. Glossing over the darkness in its own story sets the stage for an unbelievable end, one as ridiculous as, say, wagging a finger and saying a stern “no” putting an end to domestic violence. And as fun as Morse’s character is, Ogie is a pest at best and a stalker at worst. Either way, it’s an approach the musical co-signs for laughs.
It turns out that Waitress is a lot like a cherry pie. Pretty to look at, bright and warm, but made with a technique that’s more simplistic than you’d think. It’s good, but under-filled. The right bite is well balanced, tart and sweet, but the wrong one may leave a sour taste in your mouth.
Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Through February 3. For more information, call 800-982-2787 or 713-315-2525 or visit hobbycenter.org or broadwayatthehobbycenter.com. $35-$155 plus fees.