The cast of 'Waitress' at Orlando's Dr. Phillips Center.
I grew up eating in New Jersey diners, where every meal started with a free plate of pickles, and ended with a slice of cake or pie bigger than your head. The problem was that while those supersized pastries appeared appetizing, more often than not they offered little flavor beyond overwhelming sweetness.
That memory came to mind while watching Waitress
at the Dr. Phillips Center, which has come on tour to Orlando after winning award nominations and ardent fans on Broadway. Based on 2017 independent film by the late writer/director Adrienne Shelly, the musical stars Desi Oakley as Jenna (originated on film by Keri Russell), a small-town server who dreams of winning a baking contest so she can leave her loser husband Earl (Nick Bailey). An unplanned pregnancy leads to an adulterous affair with her geeky gynecologist Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart), as Jenna and her co-workers Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) and Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) struggle to juggle their tangled relationships.
The book by Jessie Nelson faithfully follows the plot points of Shelly’s original screenplay, and Sara Bareilles’ hipster pop score is perfectly pleasant, even if the only melody to stick in my memory the following morning was the preshow “turn off your cell phone” song. This touring cast is filled with first class performers, beginning with Oakley, who brings a pure, powerful belt to the title role; Dawson is satisfyingly sassy as Becky, and Klingaman dials Dawn’s awkwardness up to 11 to the crowd’s delight. And Lorin Latarro’s choreography visualizes the film’s iconic pie-making scenes in an imaginatively abstract way.
Unfortunately, while Waitress
wants to be cute and quirky, Diane Paulus’ direction too often leans towards cloying and cheesy. Like cheddar on apple pie, this is a matter of aesthetic taste; the audience members in the row behind me roared with laughter at broad gags that made my eyes roll. Similar to Paulus’ productions of Pippin
and Finding Neverland
, this musical amps up the slapstick energy at the expense of any subtlety, reducing complex human characters into stock stereotypes: Earl is one-dimensional villain out of a domestic violence TV movie, while Dr. Pomatter is too much of a spastic stalker to embrace his infidelity with Jess.
Oakley nearly redeems the entire show with her eleventh hour anthem “She Used to Be Mine,” but it is a rare moment of psychological realism amid the sugar-coated shtick. Fans of Bareilles’ music should go home satisfied, but theatergoers who expect a side dish of emotional honesty with their musical comedy meal may leave Waitress