Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Waitress is Wonderful

Could Waitress have arrived in Minneapolis at a better time? 


Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

With all of the sexual harassment allegations swarming the cultural conversation, women coming forward every day to tell stories of abuse and hardship, and an increasing focus on telling women's stories, what better than to enjoy this positive, aggressively normal story of women supporting each other and emerging from their damaging pasts?

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, a quick overview: Waitress tells the story of Jenna, a master pie baker who married too young and is stuck waitressing at a diner, where she bakes each of the pies they sell fresh every day. We immediately learn that Jenna is recently pregnant by her abusive, deadbeat husband Earl, a fact she thoroughly laments. The rest of the story takes us through Jenna's pregnancy as she conducts an affair with her doctor, watches her waitressing friends find love and affairs of their own, and plans to enter a national pie baking contest in order to win enough money to leave Earl behind. Things don't go exactly as Jenna plans but they do improve her circumstances; while this is no fairy tale, isn't that how life goes?

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

Does this sound like a rather platonic, boring story? It's not. I was immediately swept into Jenna's narrative (the exceedingly catchy orchestration by Sara Bareilles doesn't hurt) and the familiar, loving characters surrounding her life. The cast really sells this script, starting with Desi Oakley as an incandescent Jenna. Oakley has a deceptively big voice for such a small frame, and she trills with ease through every Bareilles-penned musical flourish. Charity Dawson is magnificent as Jenna's friend and co-waitress Becky; my only lament is that she only had one solo (give her her own show, please! She has talent in spades). Lenne Klingman is absolutely hilarious as the third waitress Dawn, especially when paired with Dawn's lover Ogie. Jeremy Morse knocks the socks off of Ogie's role, and as my date said: Morse's songs, played to utmost comedic effect, are the highlight of the show.

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

Ryan Dunkin brings great swagger to his role as Cal, the waitress' boss, and Larry Marshall embodies the trope of the benevolent old man as Joe. Bryan Fenkart is probably the weakest link as Jenna's lover Dr. Pomatter, but his soft-spoken delivery and awkward characterization endear him to the audience even in the back row. Nick Bailey is despicable as Jenna's husband Earl, to the point that the audience booed him at the curtain call. And Minnesota native Prewitt Anderson is hands-down adorable as Jenna's daughter Lulu in a gorgeous reveal at the end of the performance - she did great for being only five years old.

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

The set and props for Waitress are shockingly complex considering how quickly they are removed and arranged. This is a fully operative diner with every small (and working!) accouterments, down to refillable ketchup and mustard bottles, coffee pots and creamers, silverware, and of course Jenna's myriad baking supplies. It's a dizzying amount of items to track, and hats off to the stage hands for keeping everything perfectly in place and quickly re-set. The band delightfully sits on a track on stage and periodically takes a trip across, giving us a full view of the music at work. There are several beautiful scrims at work here as well, including a vista at a rural bus stop, a shitty mobile home, and the latticed crust of a cherry pie. Costumes by contrast are exceedingly simple and mostly kept to uniforms for each character's respective profession. The overall effect is to make this seem a familiar, warm world which comes alive with the lovely performances. It's perfect for the holidays and especially well suited to Thanksgiving week.

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

I've always been a fan of stories about "normal" people. I get frustrated in the amount of escapism prevalent in our media; while it's nice to fantasize, most of us are never going to possess Kardashian-level riches and that doesn't make our lives terrible! Jenna's heartbreaking story of abuse, reluctant motherhood and inability to change her circumstances is one that faces so, so many people in this country, and it was really great to see it get a chance to shine. Through Jenna's baking escape we are able to see that everyone has a gift to share with the world; you don't need a lot of things to be happy, just inner peace; with the help of your community you can leave abusers and demand better for yourself; and being nice to everyone you meet is never a bad strategy to get ahead in life. Pretty perfect summation of the reason for the season, #amiright? Waitress runs through the holiday and closes at the Orpheum on November 26. It's a great family show and well worth a visit if you need to get out of the house this weekend. For more information or to buy tickets, click here: https://hennepintheatretrust.org/.