Review: ‘Waitress’ at The National Theatre

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Waitress at the National Theatre is sweet as “Sugar.” The word resonates during scene shifts, as an immensely talented piemaker, Jenna (Desi Oakley), lists the ingredients for the new pie she is inventing in the opening number, “What’s Inside.” The mix of flavors is delicious as Jenna is joined in harmonies by her fellow waitresses, brassy Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) and quirky uber-nerd Dawn (Lenne Klingaman). The band, who are occasionally also onstage, and other singers are uniformly terrific, and do justice to the songs of first-time Broadway composer, and 6-time Grammy nominee, Sara Bareilles.

Charity Angel Dawson, Desi Oakley, and Lenne Klingaman in Waitress. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Charity Angel Dawson, Desi Oakley, and Lenne Klingaman in Waitress. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The show’s book is by Jessie Nelson, with music by Bareilles, directed by Diane Paulus, choreographed by Lorin Latarro, and based on the movie written and directed by Adrienne Shelly. Note this dynamite all-female creative lineup, because it is a first for Broadway musicals. The blocking and choreography is astounding, with the entire ensemble interweaving and singing gorgeous harmonies while throwing or dropping props into others’ hands, as settings shift in scene changes which were just as brilliantly choreographed. This is theatrical collaboration at its best.

Lovable characters, played by wonderful talents, abound. Dawson’s Becky has sass to spare and she loves calling the bluffs and threats from Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), the blustering short-order cook, who is gruff with the waitresses, but smart enough to shut up and walk away when Becky stands up to him.

[Related read: Someone’s got to be the bad guy: An interview with Waitress’ Nick Bailey]

Old Joe (Larry Marshall) is the lovable curmudgeon and owner of the diner where Jenna works. His irascible character is clearly fond of Jenna and despite fitting a stereotype, one can not help but be beguiled by Marshall.

Jeremy Morse as Ogie steals the show as the oddball suitor to Dawn. He is brilliant in his show-stopping number, “Never, Ever Getting Rid of Me.” His physical comedy and limber dancing bring to mind Ray Bolger or Donald O’Connor and his character turns out to be a perfect match for Dawn, who is also intensely and lovably weird. It is awkward though, when the healthiest relationship in the show, starts with a stalker song.

Nick Bailey and Desi Oakley in Waitress. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Nick Bailey and Desi Oakley in Waitress. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The success of Waitress requires a multi-talented Jenna and Oakley delivers. Every relationship she has with other characters is carefully wrought. Her physical precision while dancing with others is impressive. Her signature number, “She Used to be Mine,” which has become a pop hit for Bareilles, brought the house down. The transition of her character’s budding relationship with her new gynecologist is riveting, even if we saw it coming and even though it is unusually silly. Bryan Fenkart as Dr. Pomatter is wonderful at being embarrassingly awkward. Their duet “Bad Idea” is lovely fun. Jenna’s daughter Lulu is played on alternate performances by two local children, Alexa M. Lueck and Eva Pieja.  I saw Miss Lueck, whose dancing with Ogie during curtain call was delightful.

There were a number of things which make one question the mix of styles in the show, similar to the odd mix of ingredients in some of Jenna’s pies. Musicals that have this much blatant camp, can struggle when complexities like relationships require nuance. This show embraces awkward romances, for which I applaud it, but I was struck by the fizzly departure of the show’s villain, Jenna’s abusive, self-involved husband Earl (Nick Bailey). It should be stated that Bailey’s portrayal was excellent and the audience despises Earl, clearly making it difficult to shift gears when applauding for him during bows. Waitress will not be everyone’s slice of pie. The humor goes past racy to brazenly sexual. The themes include infidelity (by sympathetic characters) and spousal abuse, and we don’t see any healthy examples of marriage. That being said, it pushes creative boundaries, explores awkward complexities of relationships, and is so full of talented acting, beautiful music and design, that as a delectable pie, it is overflowing and boiling out of its crust.

Running Time: Two hours and 35 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Waitress plays through June 3, 2018, at The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20004. For tickets, purchase at the box office, call 800-514-3849 (ETIX) or go online.