A good baker knows the right ingredients are sacred. When waitress Jenna Hunterson gets asked what’s inside her famous pies, the answer isn’t so easy.
“Everyone wants to know what’s inside. And I always tell them. But I feel more than words can say,” she sings. “You wanna know what’s inside? Simple question, so then what’s the answer? My whole life is in here.”
And Jenna knows life can be just as disorganized as baking. Spill some flour, drop an egg on the counter, or make a few wrong choices in your personal life; it all can create a mess.
Jenna’s “mess” is at the core of the musical Waitress, where she’s stuck working at a diner and in an unhappy marriage. Jenna dreams of a better life, but that dream is disrupted by a positive pregnancy test. Jenna then sets her sights on winning the annual pie contest as a chance for her and her baby to start a new life. But when she starts an affair with her gynecologist, her life gets even more complicated.
Based on the 2007 movie of the same name, Waitress opened on Broadway last year and was nominated for four Tony Awards. It achieved a milestone as the first Broadway musical with an all-female creative team: Music and lyrics were written by pop singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles, who was joined by a female book writer, director, choreographer, costume designer and musical director.
Waitress is not a big Broadway show with sequined ball gowns, big dance numbers or other audience-grabbing gimmicks. Rather, it is a lovely story told by a talented cast and crew.
And it is wonderful.
While it might seem cheesy in concept, the show uses baking as a metaphor for life. It’s familiar and inviting. It’s intimate and relates to anyone who desires to be happier. Waitress delivers this message with spectacular simplicity that makes the musical feel just as homey as coming back from a long day at work to the smell of cookies in the kitchen.
From a small town in the middle of nowhere, Jenna laments during one scene, “Nobody ever really notices me.” It encapsulates how she feels about her life: a forgotten girl in a forgotten town. This sentiment is one of the strengths of the story, giving a voice to the rich intensity of an everyday life. Stuck in a loveless marriage, pregnant and working in a diner, Jenna’s story deserves to be told in all its emotional complexity.
Waitress is the first musical by Bareilles, and hopefully not the last. The show features a wide spectrum of excellent songs, from the hilarious “Never Getting Rid of Me,” sung by a persistent suitor, to “A Soft Place to Land,” reminding the audience the importance of dreaming. Even the simple refrain, “Sugar, butter, flour,” that plays throughout the show is utterly charming.
But no song can top the beautiful “She Used to be Mine,” about getting lost along your way.
“She’s imperfect, but she tries. She is good, but she lies,” Jenna sings of herself. “She is messy, but she’s kind. She is lonely most of the time. She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie. She is gone, but she used to be mine.”
Playing Jenna, Desi Oakley shines during this climax as she shows off her vocal prowess. She fills the theater with her smooth and powerful voice, as good as a slice of silky lemon meringue pie.
While Oakley anchors the show, she is well supported by a colorful cast of stars. Playing her two friends and coworkers are Charity Angel Dawson as the sassy Becky, and Lenne Klingaman as the neurotic Dawn. Each female character is developed, nuanced, complicated and layered — highlighting the exact reason why the world needs more female writers telling female stories.
Along with the women, Waitress features a group of just-as-interesting male characters. Bryan Fenkart delights as Dr. Pomatter, the goofy, sweet and loving doctor who helps shake up Jenna’s world, and Nick Bailey gives a flawless performance as Jenna’s repulsive husband Earl, who makes Jenna promise she’ll always love him more than the baby. The seemingly random standout performance of the night goes to Jeremy Morse as Ogie, Dawn’s online admirer, who might be the densest character in the show. Morse is hilarious and enamors the audience every second he is on stage.
Waitress leaves the audience satisfied. Not the satisfaction achieved from overloading on sugar, but more so the feeling after eating a hearty meal that was both nutritious and delicious.
For this play, the recipe isn’t hard. Use good ingredients and you’ll come out with a good pie… ahem, musical every time.
On the Bill: Waitress. The Buell Theatre at Denver Performing Arts Complex, 1400 Curtis St., Denver. Through Dec. 31.