REVIEW: Waitress

I’m torn; on one hand, I really liked WAITRESS as a musical. It’s structured well, it’s got complicated characters, tricky moral problems, and an interesting score.  On the other hand, there are too many characters, some really cheesy joke-lines, and things wrap up just a little neatly.

Based on a movie by the same name from 2007, musician Sara Bareilles composed songs and Jessie Nelson wrote the script for this 2015 Broadway production.  Now on tour, the show will play at the Aronoff Center through January 21st.

Jenna (Desi Oakley), a waitress at a diner is known for her creative and tasty pies.  She also has an abusive husband (Nick Bailey), a feisty friend (Charity Angél Dawson), a nerdy friend (Lenne Klingaman), and a brand new gynecologist (Bryan Fenkart).  And she’s not seeing him for a routine checkup.

Nor does she only see him for medical advice.

Oakley is engaging as the lead, embracing the female empowerment theme with heart and sincerity.  Fenkart is beyond charming, but in as unconventional a way as I’ve seen from a leading man.  He’s effortlessly awkward, naturally likable, and very funny.  He’s unassuming, self-conscious, and such a departure from Jenna’s despicable husband that it’s no wonder things take a morally complex turn.

There’s also Cal, the diner cook, and Joe, the old man who owns the place.  There’s Ogie, a love interest for Dawn who I wish we never met – not because performance by Jeremy Morse is anything less than spectacular; on the contrary, he is quite funny and surprising.  I personally just would have rather imagined this guy than seen him.

Then there’s also whole bunch of ensemble players and band members who move about and across the stage in such distracting ways that I wanted to yell “just stand still” on multiple occasions.  Director Diane Paulus seems to lack confidence in the audience’s attention-span or the cast’s ability to engage as sets move inexplicably at times and ensemble members come in and out of scenes to interact silently and unnecessarily with the leading cast.  It’s a good story, with good arcs, and talented actors.  I wish they could have just told the story without all the bells and whistles.

I like the show; I think you will, too.  Bareilles’s songs are surprising in their country overtones but they fit well in the setting of the Southern down-home Americana diner.  The performances are strong and the energy upbeat despite some dark material.  It’s not the best show this season, but it’s got heart.  And enough sugar to balance its downfalls.

WAITRESS runs through January 21st at the Aronoff Center in downtown Cincinnati.  Tickets and more information can be found here.