With an all-female creative team that includes the singer-songwriter and six-time Grammy® nominee Sara Bareilles (who created the original music and lyrics), Adrienne Shelly (screenwriter for the 2007 film), Jessie Nelson (who created the book for the Broadway musical), Lorin Latarro (choreographer), and Tony Award® winner Diane Paulus (director), the Broadway hit Waitress the Musical is the perfect example of the type of realities that created the #MeToo Movement. The show is a positive and uplifting tale of an abused woman’s journey to happiness; and it is filled with huge songs, contemporary conflicts, and some of the best female singing and acting to hit the Durham Performing Arts Center stage this year.
When the show opens, it’s to a theme that will repeat throughout the performance: the basic ingredients for a pie (sugar, butter, flour) are repeated in a dreamy song that brings the main character, Jenna (played by Desi Oakley), back to the best parts of her life when she was alone in the kitchen with her Mother (Grace Stockdale). They share more than an affinity for cooking the best pies in the area. They are also both abused by their husbands.
That theme is prominent in this show and could be overwhelming, except Jenna is not someone who lies down and takes her husband, Earl’s (Nick Bailey), verbal, physical, and psychological abuse. She has learned from watching her mother on the receiving end of beatings. Though Jenna’s caught and kept in the marriage because of a pregnancy, she is still determined to find her way out, and entrance into a dessert contest, with a $20,000 winning prize might just be her ticket.
It’s a delicate balance to play a woman who’s both spunky and abused, but Desi Oakley does it with aplomb. Her acting is natural and confident, and her twinge of a Southern accent creates the perfect waitress persona. Her speaking voice is low, with a drawl that punctuates her comedic timing; but it’s her singing voice that literally brings the house down.
Oakley plays with rhythm and the musical scale expertly, imbuing the songs that we’ve come to know from the show with her own style, and she is truly phenomenal. When she sings the powerful solo “She Used to Be Mine,” it’s a moment worth waiting for; and her voice took on colors and textures that she hadn’t shown yet in her performance. The audience responded with hoots and hollers to express their admiration — and an extended round of applause that probably would have gone on and on if the audience didn’t want to know what happens next.
A performer that strong needs an equally strong supporting cast, and Waitress delivers that in spades. The story is about friendship, food, and motherhood. Jenna’s friends, the other waitresses, shy and bespectacled Dawn (played by Lenne Klingaman, veteran of Shakespearean theater, as well as TV) and the boisterous caretaker Becky (played by Charity Angél Dawson, a Broadway veteran), experience their own relationship issues; and the three of them support each other completely, forming a solid bond. Klingaman and Dawson harmonize gorgeously with Oakley on songs such as “The Negative” and “A Soft Place to Land,” moving from the practical to the emotional to the comical in their scenes.
Even though Jenna’s mom (Grace Stockdale) really doesn’t speak, she is still an active character in the play, influencing Jenna in many ways. The relationship between mother and daughter is central to the story, and becomes the reason that Jenna is finally able to leave the marriage with Earl.
Another woman who lights up the stage when her sarcastic remarks are tossed over her shoulder, almost as an afterthought, is Nurse Norma, played by Chante Carmel. Frank and forthright, she is the mirror that Jenna and her doctor/lover, Dr. Pomatter (played by Bryan Fenkart, veteran of both Broadway and TV) have to face when they find themselves drawn into an illicit affair.
Though most of the men are portrayed as less than perfect, the women admit to being less than perfect, too. When all is said and done, Jenna and company recognize that they are all human and flawed, a mixed-up pie made of sugar, butter, flour, and a number of other ingredients.
The men in Waitress include the abusive Earl, played with a mixture of meanness and pain by Nick Bailey. It’s easy to understand why Jenna has stayed with him when he kneels in front of her, begging her to understand. Cal, the cook at Joe’s Pie Diner, where Jenna and the waitresses work, is portrayed perfectly by Ryan G. Dunkin, a big guy who channels Jackie Gleason’s iconic stage exit several times during the show.
The typical grouchy patron who comes in daily to order the same meal is Joe, an old grouchy man played by Donterrio Johnson. But the man who steals the show is Jeremy Morse, who plays the history-loving poet Ogie with an incredibly high kick. His stalked-crazy songs and crazy dance moves delight the audience.
Though it’s clear immediately that Jenna’s marriage is brutal, she hasn’t been able to escape, because Earl controls the money, making her empty her pockets after returning home from each of her shifts. She’s trapped; and to make matters worse, her unfortunate pregnancy closes even more doors for her.
The one door that opens is to her doctor’s office, but her affair with Dr. Pomatter isn’t designed to bring her happiness. The chemistry between Desi Oakley and her co-star Bryan Fenkart is evident in their two big songs, “It Only Takes a Taste” and “You Matter to Me”; but it’s clear that their romance is an ill-fated one, because they are both married. It’s almost heartbreaking when they sing about what a “Bad Idea” their relationship is, but it’s obvious that it’s not one meant to last.
The music in this show is only second to the performers. All of the singers have great voices that open up to embrace big moments like the ones created in Becky’s (Charity Angél Dawson) solo, “I Didn’t Plan It.” Her big voice shakes the rafters, and she digs deep to show her range.
The other waitress with pipes is Dawn (Lenne Klingaman), but her style is more comic, and her moment with Ogie (Jeremy Morse) in “I Love You Like a Table” is both hilarious and filled with catchy music and enthusiastically sassy dancing.
All in all, Waitress is thoroughly enjoyable, socially relevant, and brimming with stupendous musical moments. Nothing could be more appropriate for this time in history than to see a show populated by average, everyday females and males, all living their perfectly imperfect lives.
SECOND OPINION: May 2nd Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh review by Jeffrey Kare: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Review-WAITRESS-National-Tour-at-Durham-Performing-Arts-Center-20180502 and March 21st BWW TV interview with Desi Oakley, conducted by Jeffrey Kare: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-TV-Desi-Oakley-of-WAITRESS-National-Tour-20180321 April 28th Raleigh, NC News & Observer mini-preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article209817894.html; April 25th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/waitress/Event?oid=13706284; and April 25th Raleigh, NC WRAL.com preview by Kathy Hanrahan for “What’s on Tap”: https://www.wral.com/broadway-smash-waitress-heads-to-durham/17477512/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the May 1st Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/05/female-led-creative-team-transforms-waitress-the-movie-into-waitress-the-hit-broadway-musical-at-dpac/.)
The Durham Performing Arts Center presents WAITRESS THE MUSICAL at 7:30 p.m. May 2 and 3, 8 p.m. May 4, 2 and 8 p.m. May 5, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. May 6 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.
TICKETS: $35 and up, plus taxes and fees. Click here for $20-$30 rush tickets and other DPAC Special Offers.
Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or https://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115558/2336217.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/281-0587, Groups@DPACnc.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/group-services.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwrwQoVsKFfRqHrWqriCxMQ.
DPAC‘S 2017-18 “TEN GREAT YEARS” SUNTRUST BROADWAY SERIES: https://www.dpacnc.com/suntrust-broadway-series-2017-18 and https://www.dpacnc.com/news/detail/announcing-suntrust-broadway-at-dpac-2017-2018-season.
THE TOUR: https://waitressthemusical.com/, https://www.ibdb.com/tour-production/waitress–514071, https://www.facebook.com/waitressmusical, https://twitter.com/waitressmusical, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waitress_(musical)#Productions, and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwrwQoVsKFfRqHrWqriCxMQ.
TOUR CAST & CREATIVE TEAM: https://waitressthemusical.com/tourcast.
PARENTAL ADVISORY: On its website, DPAC writes, “… Children under the age of 6 are not allowed at this performance [emphasis added]. Children must be able to sit quietly in their own seat without disturbing other guests. As a further courtesy to our guests, DPAC recommends one parent or chaperone for every one child in attendance.”
NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 8 p.m. Saturday, May 5th, performance.
Waitress (2007 film): http://www.foxsearchlight.com/waitress/ (official website), http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/643332/Waitress/ (Turner Classic Movies page), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0473308/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waitress_(film) (Wikipedia).
Waitress (2015 American Repertory Theater at Harvard University and 2016 Broadway musical): https://waitressthemusical.com/ (official website), https://americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/waitress (American Repertory Theater), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/waitress-502859 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waitress_(musical) (Wikipedia).
Study Guide: https://americanrepertorytheater.org/sites/default/files/uploaded/files/waitress%20toolkit%20final%208.19.pdf (American Repertory Theater).
Sara Bareilles (music and lyrics): http://waitress.sarabmusic.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/sara-bareilles-502865 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1679561/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sara_Bareilles (Wikipedia).
Jessie Nelson (book): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/jessie-nelson-502866 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0625458/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessie_Nelson_(filmmaker) (Wikipedia).
Dawn Reno Langley is the award-winning author of The Mourning Parade, as well as other novels, children’s books, nonfiction books, essays, short stories, poems, and articles. She is the creator of The Writer’s Hand Journals and runs workshops on using journals in every walk of life. A Fulbright Scholar, she holds the MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, and the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from Union Institute and University. She lives in Durham with her dog, Izzy. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.