"Waitress" review, show #826
While I acknowledge that Broadway is blessed to have a Sara Bareilles score that has pop, freshness, and character-driven lyricism, it doesn’t have an amateur baker’s chance in redeeming the overall blandness that is the musical Waitress. Adapted from Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film, Bareilles and Jessie Nelson (Book) have brought a well-drawn, surface level production to the stage. However, there is a high demand on the principal cast to deliver assumed exposition in order to draw in the audience, and that effort is not worth the two-and-a-half-hour run time. That said, the currently touring production brings to stage a strong cast of interpreters who are more than up to snuff in delivering everything they have to bake an enjoyable dessert of theatre outing.
Last week, Waitress served up a two-night stay in Fresno at the Saroyan Theater. While the sound left little to be desired (but we always blame the sound, don’t we?), the show rose well with the right amounts of sugar, butter, and flour. I was entertained by how committed the cast–led by understudy Kelly Prendergast as Jenna–was in telling the story in a unified and consistent manner. Prendergast was stellar in every song given to Jenna, but was especially show-stopping in her first act “I Want” song, “What Baking Can Do.” Yes, her act two torch number, “She Used to Be Mine” was excellent, but Jenna is a role where you can’t cast an actress who won’t deliver that one, so my interest lies in everything before. Prendergast had excellent chemistry opposite an equally talented David Socolar as Dr. Pomatter. The scene where these characters first meet serves as one of the best opening love scenes I have seen in the modern theatre. It is refreshing to see a “leading man” have quirks and awkwardness as he tests the waters in an unknown lake of flirtation. Not just a solid actor, Socolar brought a sublime tenor, supplying enough backstory that informed “It Only Takes a Taste” and “You Matter to Me,” almost making one forget that we, the audience, are rooting for a two-tiered affair. This is the hill that the show climbs and dies on. Though it works for Jenna a bit more, due to her husband, Earl, being an abusive dunce, it appears that Mrs. Pomatter is sweet, lovely, and a dedicated wife. Socolar’s charm goes into overdrive in order to make the audience like him, which he succeeds at, but still…
Gabriela Marzetta, as Dawn, and Dominique Kent, as Becky, offered singularly great support in their respective tracks, nailing the diner-waitress demeanor with superb realism and sarcasm. Marzetta was a delightful ball of nerves in “When He Sees Me,” while Kent nearly shattered the walls of the Saroyan with her act two triumph, “I Didn’t Plan It.” The trio of waitresses teamed up for a dynamite vocal performance in “The Negative.” Marzetta’s chemistry opposite the scene-stealing Brian Lundy, playing Ogie, was earnest and pure, the one relationship the audience should root for. Lundy was in stellar voice for “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me”, and his excellent animated acting contained the right amount of build to make the audience yearn to applaud the work. Kent’s sugar-and-spice chemistry opposite Jake Mills’ buffoonish (in a good way) Carl is, yet again, another two-tiered affair we are asked to root for. However, we have the fortune of never meeting their spouses, one of whom is declared to be an invalid and the other a potential lesbian.
Shawn W. Smith does everything he can to make the generically-written Earl, the aforementioned dunce abuser, work. Smith’s voice sounded great in “You Will Still Be Mine,” but the sound limited most of the enunciated lyrics, preventing any semblance of “Oh, that’s Earl’s backstory. I guess I feel a little for him now” sympathy. The role is not well-written, especially after how specific the other male roles are being delivered, leaving Smith in the awkward spot of trying to make the dialogue work. Michael R. Douglas does a swell job as Joe, the pie-diner’s owner. Douglas’ one-liners and zingers are given the seasoned experience of a mature actor, balancing the humor and heartfelt conversations the role is baked with.
With original direction by Diane Paulus and choreography by Lorin Latarro, the under-used ensemble is great when needed, and is kept smooth and seamless by the re-creations of Susanna Wolk’s tour direction and Abbey O’Brien’s tour choreography. Scott Pask’s wonderful set is colored well by Ken Billington’s bright lighting design, both of which translated well in the Saroyan Theater. Waitress is most certainly a donuts-for-dinner outing, and for most, dig in. If that is your craving, check out the tour’s website and see if the pie shop is coming to a town near you.