SALT LAKE CITY — The latest touring show to visit the Eccles Theater is Waitress, a new musical based on Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film of the same name. The story follows Jenna, a warmhearted waitress who uses her job baking pies at a local diner as an escape from an abusive marriage. An unexpected pregnancy drives her to save up to enter the Springfield baking contest in the hopes of winning a $25,000 grand prize she can use to leave her husband for good. With some help from her friends at the diner and a local doctor, Jenna finds the courage to take her life into her own hands.
Sara Bareilles (who wrote the music and lyrics) and Jessie Nelson (the book author) have created a snappy adaptation that is at turns heart-warming, hilarious, and sobering. Desi Oakley is a grounded and loveable Jenna, playing her with a dry wit that elicits laughs while masking deep pain. As her husband Earl, Nick Bailey is rotten almost to the point of being cartoonish, but his interactions with Jenna are effectively terrifying. Oakley’s physicality completely changes, almost going limp while Bailey manhandles her. It’s a sobering image for anyone familiar with the effects of domestic abuse.
The heart of the show lives in the interactions between Jenna and her quirky co-workers, Becky (played by Charity Angel Dawson) and Dawn (played by Lenne Klingaman). The song “A Soft Place to Land” is a highlight of the show, creating almost magical visuals with simple kitchen ingredients and showing the depth of feeling between these women. As Jenna, jokes to Becky later in the show, “Perhaps we should have an affair,” Becky responds with, “This ain’t no affair. I’m in this for life.”
Dawson is a highlight of the production. In addition to her impeccable comic timing, she has a powerful voice that shines in her solo number “I Didn’t Plan It.” Klingaman is appropriately quirky, if a little weaker vocally than her cast mates. Dawn’s suitor Ogie, portrayed marvelously by Jeremy Morse, is an absolute scene stealer. His quirky, inhaler clutching, poetry reciting, history loving, Irish clogging character left me in stitches with each appearance. His solo, “Never Getting Rid of Me” is the comic high point of an already funny show.
Bryan Fenkart plays an appropriately neurotic Dr. Pomatter. He and Oakley have strong chemistry, which make songs like “You Matter to Me” and “It Only Takes a Taste” sweet and touching. Pomatter helps build Jenna’s confidence in a way few others can, and is a bright spot in her otherwise difficult life. While I rooted for the couple, ultimately I rooted for Jenna. In the powerful ballad, “She Used to Be Mine,” Oakley delivers a raw performance that shows the audience just how strong Jenna is to endure the day to day challenges life has thrown at her while still maintaining her goodness and optimism. Everyone knows a Jenna: someone good who is trapped in circumstances with people who reduce and belittle them, which is probably why there weren’t many dry eyes in the audience during Oakley’s performance.
In addition to a strong cast, director Diane Paulus’s staging is fluid and elegant, shifting scenes seamlessly from one to the next. The pace never lags, and the scenes with baking are staged in a way that makes pie making look beautiful, even transcendent. Lorin Latarro’s choreography is unique and modern, using organic movements that effortlessly blend with the action. Ken Billington’s lighting design is beautiful and complements Scott Pask’s versatile set. Despite these strengths, there did seem to be some issues with sound, as the live orchestra occasionally overpowered the singers, and the diction made it difficult to understand all the lyrics at times.
Waitress is fresh and heartfelt, and masterfully executed. If you have the chance, head down to the Eccles to laugh, cry, and be uplifted.