Chicago Reviews

“Waitress” Is the Recipe for a Perfect Evening

★★★★

Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Joan Marcus.

Recipe for Everything You Could Desire in a Musical Pie:

Start with sugar, butter and flour. Fold in enjoyable characters based on a sweet little 2007 Adrienne Shelley film that was, in itself, a little slice of heaven. Add about seventeen lovely tunes by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles and a clever book by Jessie Nelson. Mix well with a story about a pregnant pie shop waitress and cook who desperately needs to escape her abusive husband and meets an equally married doctor with whom she begins a passionate affair. Blend with humor and love and bake for two and a half hours in front of a live audience. Serve while still warm and wonderful.

Shelley’s story, written in two weeks for the daughter she was carrying, tells of Jenna (played here by a powerful Desi Oakley), whose pregnancy complicates her plan to get away from her dead-end life with Earl (a wonderfully despicable performance by Nick Bailey), her high school boyfriend who has become a lazy, selfish and utterly nasty man. She spends her days baking pies and coming up with new recipes for things like “Devil’s Food Chocolate Oasis Pie” and “I Can’t Have An Affair Because It’s Wrong (And I Don’t Want Earl To Kill Me) Pie.” She dreams of somehow winning a pie-baking contest and disappearing from the life she has led, which fortunately for her includes two great friends, the shy Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) and boisterous Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) who help keep her sane, and a cantankerous boss Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), who isn’t anywhere near as bad as he wants to be seen.

When her discovery of her pregnancy leads her to consult the new gynecologist in town (Bryan Fenkart), Jenna’s life grows even more complicated. The two have an instant awkward chemistry that Oakley and Fenkart play beautifully and comically. Both are immensely likable actors, and it’s easy to want them to be happy together despite the fact that this is an affair for both of them. Jenna, though, is brought back to earth by the words of Old Joe (Larry Marshall), the curmudgeonly owner of the pie shop, who reminds her that affairs “make you seem like a hussy.”

Bareilles is clever enough to showcase individually almost her entire cast. Klingaman’s “When He Sees Me” lets us get deeper into Dawn’s inner life as she imagines a date with someone she met online. That date turns out to be Ogie (Jeremy Morse), who has his own hilarious solo with “Never Getting Rid Of Me,” a song that might make him seem indeed to be the “stalker elf” that Dawn first calls him if Morse were not so darned endearing while singing it. Dawson too has a highlight moment as she explains her own affair in “I Didn’t Plan It.” Old Joe gets into the act as well with the sweet “Take It From an Old Man.” Heck, even Earl gets a song. But it’s Jenna who gets the bulk of the songs, whether she is singing with Fenkart (the comic “Bad Idea” or the sweet “You Matter to Me”), with her friends (“Opening Up”) or on her own (the poignant “She Used to be Mine”), and Oakley’s strong voice and equally strong acting utterly endear her to the audience.

This is an uplifting and joyful play that, under Diane Paulus’s direction, zips along very quickly. Small touches like having the onstage orchestra and ensemble clapping for Jenna and Dr. Pommater or clever ensemble choreography highlighting some of Jenna’s dreamed inventive pies abound, allowing the background players to have as much fun as the main cast. And it is clear that this excellent cast is indeed having a good time, which is the recipe for Standing Ovation Pie, a heaping serving of which was doled out at the end of Tuesday night’s opening performance. Joe’s Pie Diner is a fun and lively place full of delightful performances and delicious moments, a joyous place to spend the evening.

Waitress is a Broadway in Chicago production now playing at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St, Chicago, until July 22. Performance times may vary; check the website at Broadway in Chicago. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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