There are two kinds of people in the world: Cake people and pie people. And usually, cake people get all the high profile gigs, from multi-tiered wedding cakes to TV shows celebrating the creations of innovative cake bakers. Meanwhile, those of us who love pies are relegated to the occasional pie-in-the-face gag and the gag-inducing meat pies in Sweeney Todd.
Well, pie lovers rejoice! Your dream has come true in the funny, touching and entirely charming musical Waitress, based on the film written by Adrienne Shelly and now beginning its national tour at Playhouse Square. In it Jenna, a waitress at the unambiguously titled Joe's Pie Diner, makes glorious pies for the joint before her shift begins. And she gives these pies unique names reflecting her emotional state at the time.
Those emotions cover a lot of ground because Jenna is married to Earl (nasty Nick Bailey), a coarse oaf who steals her tip money while hacking away at her self-esteem. But once she discovers she's pregnant, she meets a cute-quirky gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter, and starts to look for other life options with the help of her waitress pals Dawn and Becky. Jenna's pie name for this moment? "The 'I Wanna Play Doctor with My Gynecologist Chocolate Mousse' Pie."
This is more than just a fluffy meringue of a story, and it no doubt has some added heft since all the creators are women. That is a first for a Broadway show, which is a fact both heartening (you go, girls!) and a bit depressing (the first time ever? Really?). With music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, book by Jessie Nelson and choreography by Lorin Latarro, the show glories in its female-centric point of view.
That perspective adds much to the proceedings in both humorous and dramatic moments. It's hard to imagine a man writing a better scene when, early in the show, Jenna uses a pregnancy test stick at work to find out whether her episodes of nausea are caused by, uh-oh, a bun in the oven. That hilarious scene, which features the song "The Negative," is studded with specific references as Jenna, Dawn and Becky sing and pray for a postive (meaning negative) result. As you might imagine, Jenna's pie at this time is called "The 'Betrayed by My Eggs' Pie."
Near the end of the show, the song "She Used to Be Mine" perfectly reflects a woman's mindset as Jenna delivers a powerful ode to the conflicting feelings most women carry around with themselves all the time. It begins with "It's not simple to say/That most days I don't recognize me" and is filled with revealing lines that as she remembers the girl she once was, and how she became who she is: "Sometimes life just slips in through a back door/And carves out a person and makes you believe it's all true/And now I've got you/And you're not what I asked for."
That's heady stuff, and it is sung powerfully by Desi Oakley, who brings to the role of Jenna a bracing, no-nonsense attitude that allows for plenty of vulnerability. And she is well supported by her posse of other waitresses. Lenne Klingaman as the somewhat scattered Dawn explodes now and then in fits of excitement or pique, and she will make you laugh out loud. That laughter only increases after she meets endearing Ogie, who mirrors Dawn's eccentric hobbies (they are both Revolutionary War re-enactors). As Ogie, Jeremy Morse brings down the house with his rendition of "Never Getting Rid of Me" in a performance that defies description, except to say it's brilliant.
As Jenna's other gal pal, waitress Becky, Charity Angel Dawson lends a bit of sarcastic leavening to the proceedings, which is much needed at times. But her Act One opener ""I Didn't Plan It," feels a bit forced as Becky defends her tryst with Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), her usually scowling boss at the diner.
But when the songs fit the storyline and drive it forward, the tunes by Bareilles work splendidly. This is demonstrated at the end of Act One when Jenna and Dr. Pomatter (played as a slightly nervous but quite adorable fellow by Bryan Fenkart) share their feelings, and a medical exam table, in "Bad Idea." In this intricately choreographed encounter, the passionate duo confronts their doubts and decide to knock boots anyhow.
As directed by the esteemed Diane Paulus, this show is sweet but never saccharine and it goes down real smooth. If I were Jenna, I'd call it "The 'You'll Laugh, You'll Cry, You'll Sigh with Delight' Pie." Yum.