All conscious Broadway lovers can agree that the 2015-2016 season belonged to a scrappy little show called Hamilton. At the 2016 Tony Awards, musicals with the unfortunate luck of debuting the same year as the genre-smashing juggernaut had to either put their best Cynthia Erivo forward or sit back empty-handed and watch history happen.
Waitress, a charming musical about an expert baker named Jenna Hunterson and the folks who populate Joe’s Diner, was one such casualty of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius. Adapted by Jessie Nelson from the 2007 hit indie film of the same name, the musical follows Jenna as she navigates an unwanted pregnancy and an abusive marriage, fraught ordeals that Nelson punctuates with amusing small town antics. Boasting Broadway’s first ever all-women creative team, Waitress collected four Tony nominations but ultimately lost in all categories, including Best Musical and Best Original Score for composer and lyricist Sara Bareilles. To quote a friend’s lament, “Waitress deserved better.”
That same friend (who, I should clarify, worships Hamilton) accompanied me to see Waitress’ national tour at the National Theatre. Tempted by the mini-pies peddled in the aisles, we made do with the giant pie proscenium and the promise of star Desi Oakley’s honeyed voice. We didn’t have to wait long; soon, Bareilles’ “Sugar, Butter, Flour” leitmotif expanded throughout the theater, and Oakley, acting as Jenna, carried us away to her wistful world.
After the lovely, lilting opening number (“What’s Inside”), a sliding set catapults the action out of Jenna’s imagination and into Joe’s Diner. Jenna’s coworkers—the surly Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), neurotic Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) and brazen Becky (Charity Angél Dawson)—join the diner patrons in a meticulously blocked ballet of apron ties and coffee pours (“Opening Up”). “Some things never change,” they sing with relief —and regret—as they weave around tables and arrange baked goods around the onstage band.
Just a few beats later Jenna discovers how much things can change: despite reassurances from Becky and Dawn, Jenna discovers she is pregnant (“The Negative”). In response, Jenna creates the “I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie,” quickly amended to the more marketable “Betrayed By My Eggs Pie.” The scene earns laughs, especially thanks to great comedic performances from Klingaman and Dawson. But when Earl (the man-bunned Nick Bailey) stalks into the diner demanding a kiss and Jenna’s tips, her accidental pregnancy acquires ugly consequences that not even a well-delivered rhyme can remedy. (It seems important to note that, while Jenna never considers abortion as an option for herself, she does vocalize the fact that she “would never judge anyone for that.”)
By situating these three songs in rapid fire succession, Nelson and Bareilles warn of the tricky tightrope the show walks between trauma and rom-com—a balance it mostly pulls off. Dawson’s devastating one-liners and Klingaman’s impressive physical comedy are at home at the diner while Bailey’s menace is confined mostly to the house Earl shares with Jenna. And, though I anticipated Jenna’s affair with her gynecologist Dr. Pomatter (the delightfully nervous Bryan Fenkart) to be spoiled by icky power dynamics, the two actors captivate. Their shared scenes bubble over with the tempered enthusiasm of a first crush (“It Only Takes a Taste”) and later with puppy dog passion (“Bad Idea”).
At the peak of its matchmaking middle, Waitress veers into the silly. A nurse steals a pie from a pair mid-copulation. Three couples engaged in various sexual acts belt a chorus. Dawn’s geeky suitor Ogie (Jeremy Morse, all earnest energy) declares his devotion in “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” jumping two feet in the air for emphasis. (It struck me as odd that Bareilles would include a song featuring the refrain “I love you means you’re never, ever, ever getting rid of me,” when just two songs prior Jenna dealt with a toxic version of the same sentiment.) Like Ogie, these raucous bursts of over-the-top humor are harmless and entertaining, but risk a disorientating shift in tone.
Of course, it is Oakley’s Jenna—funny, kind, and brave—who masterfully bridges Waitress’ gaps between hilarity and heartbreak. With doe eyes and a stiff upper lip, Oakley captures a woman caught in the space that separates resignation and hope. Bareilles’ vulnerable lyrics, as well as Lorin Latarro’s enchanting choreography, help the cast give voice to Jenna’s reality as she bakes her depths into elaborately named pies. In the 11 o’clock number “She Used to Be Mine,” Oakley lays bare a grief for Jenna’s lost self with the raw power of her unwavering voice. It was a perfect performance, one the audience rewarded with show stopping applause.
Near the end of the first act, before a trio of men upends monotony, Jenna, Becky, and Dawn bake a pie. After adding sugar and butter (to an aching iteration of Bareilles’ melody), Dawson and Klingaman lean forward as Oakley blows a dreamy plume of flour into the air. It’s a moment heavily associated with the Waitress brand, but it’s also a strangely beautiful tribute to resilient womanhood. “May we all be so lucky,” they harmonize, mirroring each other’s movements with a sigh. “A Soft Place to Land” is a ballad about impossible dreams, yet the song might as well be about the ties that bind these women together.
Though romantic relationships dictate much of Waitress’ plot, it is the love inherent in motherhood and female friendships that grounds it. Flanked by Becky and Dawn and empowered by both her mother and daughter, Jenna creates her own way to self-actualization. It’s a triumphant journey, one that excuses the production’s hurried last few minutes as the show rushes to its joyous conclusion. I left Waitress feeling light and wholly contented, as intoxicated as if I had eaten one of Jenna’s pies.