The central character in “Waitress,” the deft musical adaptation of the 2007 film now at the Hippodrome Theatre, speaks for many women when she says that she just won’t settle anymore for being “happy enough.” She wants actual “happy” for a change.
For Jenna, the unusually imaginative pie baker stuck serving in a diner and swerving in a volatile marriage, this aspiration carries extra weight. She has had to stifle her own voice for too long, has had to endure a boorish, brutish husband for too long — his time just has to be up.
When a pie contest with a decent cash prize comes along, Jenna imagines it could provide the escape route she needs. And then she experiences some totally unexpected morning sickness, which makes Jenna’s already iffy world a whole lot more complicated — especially after she meets her new, young, charming (and married) obstetrician-gynecologist.
A remarkable number and variety of productions are sprouting up in Baltimore this winter, including the feminist musical “Waitress”; a classic Eugene O’Neill saga; and a recent work about American factory workers facing the loss of their jobs.
This plot made for an engaging movie that mingled humor with seriousness, sentiment with cynicism. It makes an engaging musical, too, thanks to a book by Jessie Nelson that retains the flavor of the original. (Adrienne Shelly, who wrote, directed and performed in the movie, was hideously murdered shortly before its release. The musical is dedicated to her memory.)
The score by Sara Bareilles is not necessarily memorable. But if her songs are short on strong melodic hooks, her lyrics can be quite fresh (rhymes are often appealingly unpredictable). Best of all, the music weaves through the dialogue neatly and naturally, for the most part avoiding the old let’s-stop-everything-and-have-a-production-number approach.
The result is the kind of cohesiveness you admire in, say, a great pie, and it helps place “Waitress” among the best of the movie-to-stage musicals that form a hefty Broadway musical sub-genre.
There is much to savor in the national touring production. Scott Pask’s set design conjures up the diner and other locations with abundant atmosphere. And the cast, directed with an incisive touch by Diane Paulus, proves uniformly winning.
Desi Oakley shines as Jenna, creating a three-dimensional portrayal that holds up even in the most comic scenes. Her sturdy singing voice and fine sense of phrasing serve her especially well in the poignant Act 2 song “She Used to Be Mine,” when Jenna is at her lowest emotional point.
Oakley’s chemistry with the limber and disarming Bryan Fenkart, who plays the tempting doctor Dr. Pomatter, makes the adulterous portion of the plot click vibrantly into place. There might be a little too much shtick at times during their encounters, but the actors make it work.
Fenkart manages to let you sense the man behind the antics, but I wish the show revealed more of the character, enough to explain his ability to transform Jenna.
The 2018-2019 season at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre will offer "Hamilton" and several other currently running Broadway shows, including "Anastasia," "Come From Away" and "The Play That Goes Wrong"; return engagements for "Les Miserables" and "The Book of Mormon" are also on the lineup.
Earl, Jenna’s clod of a spouse, isn’t fully sketched in, either, but Nelson did write in a bit of a back story (more than the the movie revealed) to give the couple greater context. Nick Bailey makes the most of the thankless assignment in a spot-on performance.
Jenna’s fellow servers at the diner are vivaciously played by Charity Angel Dawson, as wise-cracking Becky, and Lenne Klingaman, as ditsy Dawn.
Jeremy Morse is Ogie, the nerd in need of a nerdette who falls instantly for Dawn, and just about stops the show with his brilliant, rambunctious account of “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.”
Droll contributions come from Ryan G. Dunkin as the diner’s burly cook/manager and Maiesha McQueen as Dr. Pomatter’s sassy nurse. Larry Marshall, whose richly nuanced speaking voice makes the show extra songful, plays the establishment’s wise, old owner with flair.
The solid band, led at the keyboard by Jenny Cartney, performs onstage, blending in so smoothly with the set that you might think this diner offered daily entertainment along with daily pie specials.
“Waitress” has its manipulative elements and stereotypes, but transcending that is the sincerity and honesty behind this story of a woman’s effort to be heard, to be taken seriously, to bloom. Right now, a musical about that seems all the more welcome and valuable.