Full Disclosure: I’ve been listening to the music of Waitress for a few years. First, when musical lyricist and composer (and pop singer) Sarah Bareilles released an album called What’s Inside: Songs From Waitress where she sung a handful of songs from the show as a teaser to entice people to buy tickets. I then became hooked on the Broadway cast recording of the show that came out in 2016 (with the leading role of Jenna played by the incredibly talented and emotive Jessie Mueller). But my adoration for this musical started long before that, over a decade ago, when I saw the sleeper-hit, indie film Waitress (starring the also incredibly talented and emotive Keri Russell as Jenna). The film had a tragic coda when it’s filmmaker and supporting actress Adrienne Shelly was murdered before the premiere. I think that the message of hope and caring for others infused in the musical adaptation truly honors Shelly. All this being said, I had a bit of positive bias before I stepped into the National Theatre to see Waitress.
For those unfamiliar with the plot of the film, it’s the story of Jenna, a waitress in a small town diner who has a talent for making unique and transcendent pies. Her days seem to bleed into each other, only shaken up when she finds out she’s pregnant by her abusive and controlling husband Earl. She feels like this pregnancy is the final lock on an already trapped life, until she meets her (also married) OB-GYN Dr. Pomatter and they fall for each other and Jenna finally finds some excitement in her life.
Actress Desi Oakley is the strongest actress and singer in the cast. This is important and necessary because she plays Jenna and her performance guides and anchors the entire show. Oakley’s face is so transparent with hope and despair and it’s very easy to become emotionally attached to her Jenna and root for her. When she sings the song “She Used to be Mine,” about Jenna wondering what happened to the joyful girl she used to be, Oakley breaks your heart while still having a strong voice that could burst out of the theatre doors.
Members of the supporting cast bring a lot of humor and heart to the show as well. Becky (Charity Angél Dawson) and Dawn (Lenne Klingamon) play Jenna’s diner co-workers and her support system. Even though they have their own life issues, they help give Jenna support in her life. The character of Ogie (Jeremy Morse) is a real breakout scene stealer as Dawn’s lovestruck Internet date. He’s full of bad impromptu poetry and hilarious dance moves. He’s almost like an old-school SNL character, like Molly Shannon’s Mary Katherine Gallagher or Sally O’Malley. This super broad-humored characterization is totally appropriate because Ogie is pure comic relief and unselfconscious joy. It’s no wonder Morse understudied and played this role in the Broadway production, because he seems completely at home in the part.
The real trouble spot in this production is Bryan Fenkart who plays Dr. Pommater. Fenkart plays the Dr. so big and goofy and broad in the beginning of the musical that when he and Jenna fall in love it doesn’t feel grounded or natural. Perhaps it’s the way he was directed or that Fenkart and Oakley lack natural chemistry, but either way the stakes in their romantic connection don’t feel there.
Another odd part of the show is the choreography. The movement in the diner and with the main actors during their songs are pitch perfect and delightful, but there’s this added ensemble modern dance element that feels tonally off with the rest of the show. Most of that movement is attached to this dream state inner life of Jenna’s and some of it flows with the wistful tone of the show and provides appropriate contrast to her real life, and some of it feels a bit too avant-garde for the show and a bit disruptive.
No matter the off-moments or the fact that the romantic connection between Jenna and Dr. Pommeter doesn’t land, because the show really emphasizes another connection. The triumvirate of woman become the true love story of the musical. Dawn, Becky, and Jenna all play a different note in how they break out of the monotony of their daily lives in the service industry, but they all find support in each other. This love between these three actresses feels very real and rooted. While each woman has their own romantic options, it’s the importance of female friendship that is the lasting message of the musical.