WAITRESS Serves Up A Decent But Underwhelming Slice of Life

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Steven Good and Christine Dwyer in the National Tour of WAITRESS, 3/26/19-4/7/19 at the Fox. Photo Credit Philicia Endelman

Waitress, the musical, premiered on Broadway eight years after the film on which it is based debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, which itself was three months after the shocking death of writer and director Adrienne Shelly. The film was a hit, starring Keri Russell as a beat-down pie slinger in an abusive relationship. Her costars included Nathan Fillion as her new hunky OB/GYN and Andy Griffith as the cantankerous owner of Joe’s Pie Diner. In 2016, the film was adapted on Broadway and the U.S. Tour has arrived at the Fabulous Fox Theatre for a two-week engagement, March 26 – April 7, 2019.

The musical features a book by Jessie Nelson (writer, producer and director of hit films Corina, Corina and I Am Sam) and music and lyrics by multiple Grammy Award nominee Sara Bareilles. Directed by Diane Paulus, it is one of the rare productions featuring an all-female creative core. The tour stars Christine Dwyer as Jenna, the friendly waitress at Joe’s Pie Diner who is being mentally if not physically abused by her jerk of a husband, Earl, played by Matt DeAngelis. Jenna discovers that she’s pregnant and goes to see her longtime doctor only to discover that she has retired and has been replaced by the handsome Dr. Pomatter (Steven Good). Jenna initiates the affair, which the married doctor does not decline.

There must have been something in those pies, because by the end of the first act nearly everyone associated with the diner is involved with someone else. Loud waitress Becky (Maiesha McQueen) is playing tonsil hockey with Cal the cook (Ryan G. Dunkin) and zany waitress Dawn (Ephie Aardema) is hooking up with even zanier Ogie (Jeremy Morse), whom she met online.  The second act fast-forwards to the end of Jenna’s pregnancy, which sparks an abrupt change in meek Jenna’s personality. Old Joe (Richard Kline) must have been clairvoyant, or simply thought more of Jenna than anyone else in his life, as he gives her the diner before he shuffles off his mortal coil. The show final slice comes with the typical heavy dollop of whipped cream as Jenna stands liberated and independent, her friends are all happy and the diner, now named after daughter  Lulu (Penelope Garcia in weekday shows, Norah Morley on the weekends), is doing good business. Who doesn’t love a musical with a happy ending? Y’all come back now, y’heah?

I’ve never been much a fan of pie, but I don’t think that’s why I found this production to be merely decent. The production values are good, with a lovely set by Scott Pask that included room for the band to be onstage, which is something of a novelty with the big tour shows that come to the Fox Theatre. Lilli Wosk conducted the band from her piano, which included keyboardist and music director Robert Cookman, bassist Lexi Bodick, cellist Nick Anton, who also played guitar with lead guitarist Ed Hamilton, and drummer Jeff Roberts. Their performance o Sara Bareilles’ songs infused the show with a lot of energy. Those songs were okay for conveying the inner feelings of the characters but lacked any real hooks to make them memorable.

Maybe that’s my problem with Waitress. I needed a meal first. A tasty appetizer to get things started, a hearty entrée to chew on between acts and then a sweet dessert to keep me smiling on the way home. An appetizer of an unwanted pregnancy and an entrée of mass adultery isn’t something I’d personally enjoy ordering. One could perhaps forgive Jenna for her infidelity, considering how Earl treated her. Kudos, by the way, to Matt DeAngelis for giving the audience not a single crumb of possible redemption for Earl. I half-expected him to be killed off before the end of the show, and DeAngelis should be pleased to bask in the boos he receives during the curtain call. I thought McQueen did a fine job as Becky, particularly with her outstanding voice and her comic delivery. However, Becky’s backstory of having a disabled husband at home offered the flimsiest excuse to cheat on him, and Ryan Dunkin’s Call is little better with his “lesbian” wife. They won’t leave their spouses out of “love” but they’ll cheat on them despite of it? No thanks, check please. I don’t quite see the need for Dawn or Ogie at all, except to provide absurd comic relief amidst all of the psychological abuse and adultery. They had some laugh-out-loud funny moments but they didn’t feel [particularly connected to the rest of the show, like a hurriedly sprayed burst of Reddi-Whip® that gets as much of the plate as it does the pie.

I didn’t hate the show, and was particularly happy with Richard Kline’s appearance—if you don’t recognize the name, he was party animal Larry Dallas on Three’s Company. It was a wonderful surprise to see him here and interesting to watch him step into the wholesome shoes of Andy Griffith as the gruff but kind Joe. Dawn Bless was hilarious as Nurse Norma, the one person in town who seemed to see through everyone's...let's call it "mincemeat." I just wish the rest of the show wasn’t quite so cavalier about the value of relationships. There are lots of ways to handle abusive relationships, distressed marriages, and spouses with health issues beyond their control. Time after time these characters seemed to take the easiest path. Like a meal of just pie, it’s a bit sticky and ultimately not very satisfying.  

Visit www.FabulousFox.com for more on Waitress and other shows coming to the Fox Theatre.

3.5 / 5.0