You will want to leave a more-than-generous tip for the national tour of Waitress, especially if you appreciate top-notch service. It is currently bringing all the spicy baked sweetness of the original Broadway musical to Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre, just in time to add another layer of amazing voices to the ongoing Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
Leading the pack of amazing voices is Broadway rising star Desi Oakley, who inspired a new and boisterous local fan base by curtain calls.
This is the 2016 stage musical based on a wonderful 2007 movie by Adrienne Shelly. The production, with its book by Jessie Nelson and music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, is dedicated “with love and gratitude” to Shelly’s memory. I can’t envision a more throat-tightening tribute.
The play follows Shelly’s prize recipe, introducing us to the winning ways of a down-home waitress named Jenna who has found her calling in a Southern pie shop, whipping up a new creation each day to the delight of the regulars. Sadly, Jenna’s home life is not so happy, since she has every reason to regret her marriage to a ne’er-do-well named Earle, whose inner failings as a man lead him to act out as a bullying husband.
Keeping the story from going all Color Purple on us are Jenna’s fellow restaurant employees, who have boyfriend issues of their own. Oh, and let’s not forget the hyperactive married gynecologist who rediscovers his own sweet tooth when Jenna comes to him pregnant with Earle’s unwanted child.
Jenna hopes that her pie-making talents will be her ticket out of a bad situation. But rest assured, it doesn’t all work out quite so patly. Female empowerment is definitely on the menu, but there will be oodles of delicious treats along the way.
Desi Oakley’s vocal prowess is the most dominant of the delights. Her range and musical timbre are thrilling enough in country-tinged novelty tunes like “What Baking Can Do” and “You Matter to Me.” But the control and power unleashed in her solo number, “She Used to Be Mine,” left no doubt that we were in the presence of a major new singing talent.
Added amplification is rendered almost superfluous by this production. Indeed, on opening night it was often dialed much higher than needed inside the acoustically accommodating Hippodrome.
Charity Angel Dawson as Becky and Lenne Klingaman as Dawn were both all that could be wished for as Jenna’s quirky pie-shop pals. Both get big laughs all evening with their sitcom quips and failings, rallying their own big voices for the three-part harmony of “The Negative” and “A Soft Place to Land.”
The male leads are given winning ways by the actors here, even when the roles they are playing are more problematic. Shop manager Cal comes closest to what the show offers by way of a male “role model,” and the likable Ryan G. Dunkin pulls off the tricky appearance of charm within a man who has made peace with going to seed.
Dawn’s suitor, Ogie, became a huge audience favorite as played by Jeremy Morse as a one-man train wreck. And Bryan Fenkart turned cheating gynecologist Dr. Pomatter into a sort of goofy romantic lead despite making more twists and bumps than an off-kilter roller coaster.
Nick Bailey captures the cowering child in the thankless role of husband Earle, and Larry Marshall is endearing enough as the cranky and fastidious shop owner, Joe.
We won’t spoil the ending but let’s say you will leave with tears of joy in your eyes, thanks largely to the arrival of Lulu and all her charms. She was wonderfully played on opening night by Temperance Oppel and will be played on alternate dates by the no doubt equally lovable Korie Mitchell.
Director Diane Paulus seems to know where all the laughs and heartbreaks are located in the story, and thanks to her firm hand the pace never falters. Choreographer Lorin Latarro adds to the production’s sense of colorful fluidity, as does the on-stage “Waitress Band” supervised by Nadia DiGiallonardo.
Waitress comes off a little more aggressive as a musical than it did as a movie. Shelly’s film quietly insisted you come to it, whereas the musical grabs you by the lapels and insists you love it. In the end you will, too, thanks to the characters and a buttery crust baked to perfection.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.