Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Theater Review - Waitress

Waitress
Music and Lyrics by Sara Bareilles
Book by Jessie Nelson
Directed by Diane Paulus
Where: Brooks Atkinson Theater, New York, NY
When: Saturday, June 25, 2pm
Charming and moving, Waitress provides its audience with a completely enjoyable two-and-a-half hours of musical theater.  While it may not be the most ostentatious in terms of set design, costumes, or choreography, it makes up for its lack of show-stopping set pieces by giving us a set of characters we can latch onto, root for, and genuinely care about as it progresses.  Couple its completely enjoyable score by pop singer Sara Bareilles with its current stellar cast and Waitress is undoubtedly worth the price of admission.

Based on the 2007 film written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelley, Waitress tells the tale of Jenna, a diner waitress and pie maker who is stuck in an incredibly unhappy marriage.  Thinking she may finally break free of her husband Earl, Jenna discovers she is pregnant and her dreams about escaping from her husband begin to crumble like a poorly made pie crust.  Depressed, Jenna's visits to her gynecologist Dr. Jim Pomatter are a bit of a pleasant respite.  However, the doctor-patient relationship quickly shifts to one of romance with Jenna and the doctor entering into an affair despite the fact that they are both married.  Needless to say, hilarity and drama both ensue.

Much like the movie, the story of Waitress isn't anything to write home about.  It's rather basic and its characters (beyond Jenna and Dr. Pomatter) aren't particularly fleshed out.  That said, the core eight person cast imbues charm and emotion into their performances, creating a surprising amount of depth for some underwritten roles, particularly Charity Angél Dawson and Caitlin Houlahan as Jenna's girlfriends and fellow Joe's Diner waitresses Becky (the sassy one) and Dawn (the shy one).  Each getting their moment to shine, Dawson and Houlahan add heart and humor to the proceedings.  Speaking of humor, Tony nominee Christopher Fitzgerald steals his scenes as Ogie, the rather nerdy prospective beau of Dawn.  His "Never Ever Getting Rid of Me" number towards the end of Act I is hilariously brilliant, enthusiastically performed, and incredibly endearing.

Ultimately, though, the success of Waitress really lies solely on the performance of the title character -- Jenna -- played by recent addition to the cast Betsy Wolfe.  Blessed with a stunningly beautiful voice, Wolfe's Jenna is pessimistically optimistic about things meaning that she nearly always has that hint of seeing the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.  Onstage for nearly the entire 150 minutes, Wolfe more than holds our attention, hitting all the right notes both vocally and emotionally for her character.  Perhaps because she was so new (I believe she'd only been in the role for about a week when I saw her), I felt the slightest lack of chemistry between Jenna and Dr. Pomatter (played by Chris Diamantopoulos) in the opening act -- the closing number of Act I "Bad Idea" should've been ripe with sexual tension, but it was missing that for me.  However, as Act II rolled around, the two actors blended together quite nicely.

As mentioned, there's a simplistic atmosphere to Waitress, although from the moment you enter the Brooks Atkinson Theater and the scent of freshly baked pies enters your nasal passages, you have a sense that you're in for something special.  Sara Bareilles' score sometimes sounds a little one-note, but its overall aesthetic fits right in with the characters.  It delivers exactly what is needed in terms of relaying information about the emotions, motivations, and priorities of the musical's ensemble.  One song in particular -- "She Used to Be Mine" -- may be one of the best written for the stage in the past several decades.  Coming close to the conclusion of the show, it conveys Jenna's entire emotional journey through song taking the audience along for the ride and it's a powerful moment that strongly resonates as we exit the theater with a giant smile on our faces.

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