You cannot walk five feet in the Pantages Theatre without encountering a bunch of mini pies for sale, perfectly setting the scene for Waitress, the hit Broadway musical that opened in Los Angeles for the first time last night. Notable for being the first Broadway musical with an all-female primary creative team—director Diane Paulus, composer and lyricist Sara Bareilles, book writer Jessie Nelson, and choreographer Lorin Latarro—and based on Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 movie of the same name, Waitress tells the story of a woman who feels trapped in her life, and the way she uses her own inner strength and the support system around her to redefine the level of happiness she will settle for.
Jenna (Desi Oakley) is a talented pie baker and, of course, waitress at a small diner and pie shop in the south. Stuck in an abusive marriage to her longtime husband, Earl (Nick Bailey), Jenna channels all of her emotions and frustrations into creating uniquely named and flavored, consistently delicious pies, all while leaning on her co-workers and friends Becky (Charity Angél Dawson) and Dawn (Lenne Klingaman). When Jenna discovers she’s pregnant, she focuses her energy on secretly saving up the entry fee for a nearby pie contest with a grand prize that would be big enough to enable her to run away and start a new life with her baby.
Jenna, Becky, and Dawn are all looking for love, and the misadventures they stumble into on that search make up the bulk of the story of Waitress, which trickily balances serious and difficult themes with a whimsical tone. Desperate for a connection outside of her miserable marriage, Jenna starts having an affair with her married OB/GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart), while Becky, who has long been acting as caregiver for her ill husband, finds some fun with the grumpy diner manager, Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin). Dawn, who has grown used to a lonely life of TV dinners for one, ventures into the world of online dating for the first time and finds Ogie (Jeremy Morse), a quirky guy who becomes instantly smitten with her, forcing her to break down her carefully constructed walls.
The shining star of Waitress is Bareilles’s score, which is all the more impressive when you consider this is the first musical the singer/songwriter has ever written. Beginning with the opening refrain of “sugar, butter, flour,” the songs perfectly tell the story while drawing on Bareilles’s signature musical style. While numbers such as “What Baking Can Do,” “When He Sees Me,” and “Bad Idea” will definitely inspire downloads and multiple listens after leaving the theater, the pièce de résistance is “She Used to Be Mine,” the soaring eleven o’clock number in which Jenna, at a particularly low moment, contemplates the wrong turns her life has taken. This is a musical that was unfortunate enough to open on Broadway the same year as Hamilton, and it is a shame because Bareilles would have taken home a statue any other year for this beautiful music. Paulus’s direction is also detailed and innovative, particularly in the dreamlike transitions between scenes.
In a company full of strong performers, Oakley is a true star. From the first moment when she gets to really show off her impressive pipes on “What Baking Can Do,” she makes the role her own, creating a feisty Jenna who is slowly rediscovering her own self-confidence. She equally delivers in the show’s emotional moments, singing through tears and tugging on the heartstrings of the audience. The scenes Jenna shares with Becky and Dawn are the best the show has to offer, because at the end of the day this is a musical about redefining what a typical love story is, and the strongest one is between these three best friends. The story also takes a progressive stance on motherhood—Jenna is far from excited to learn she is pregnant, and regularly has to remind those around her, who want to shower her with congratulations and gifts, to dial it back a notch. While she isn’t at all sentimental about the concept of parenthood, the urgency her impending new addition provides proves to be the motivation she’s long needed to reexamine her situation.
The show falters a bit in scenes involving Earl, who is played for laughs as a bit of a buffoon who has his own name tattooed on his chest. When the audience chuckles at his song about how possessive he is and applauds as he carries a miserable, resigned Jenna off to the bedroom, it is extremely uncomfortable. You see Earl generally pushing Jenna around, manhandling her, and, most of all, emotionally manipulating and abusing her, going as far as to threaten to kill himself if she ever leaves. It is hard to reconcile this subject matter with the relatively light tone the show maintains, but Jenna’s triumphant moment of self-empowerment at the end helps in buying back the moments where the abuse is almost made light of. Overall, Waitress is a delightful and impressive achievement of a show, and it is in very good hands with this touring company—you’ll be craving pie for weeks.
Waitress runs at the Pantages Theatre through August 26th. The running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $49 and can be purchased here. Waitress is also still running on Broadway. To purchase tickets for the Broadway production, click here. After Los Angeles, the tour will move on to Seattle, Portland, and many other cities. For more information on upcoming tour stops, click here.