Review: Waitress

Christine Dwyer in Waitress                                        Photo by Tim Trumble

By Larry Laneer
March 20, 2019

You would think a show about a hard-working diner waitress and expert pie baker who finds herself in a bad way and overcomes life’s challenges without much help, and quite a bit of flack, from others might make a, well, sweet little musical. You would think. But a trifle titled Waitress is as thin as pie crust and about as flaky.

Created by Jessie Nelson (book) and singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles (music and lyrics), Waitress has all the substance of meringue. Based on the 2007 film of the same title, the show is now dishing it up at the Thelma Gaylord in the OKC Broadway touring series.

Diane Paulus, one of our leading theatrical directors, staged the production, and she went to great lengths to find things for the ensemble to do. Often, the literally supporting cast materializes and lifts actors into the air and flies them around the stage. Other times, they back up the leads like a church choir, clapping rhythmically.

Set in Joe’s Pie Diner with a detailed rural landscape depicted on a backdrop, the show could be in Anytown, USA. Let’s say Kansas. It’s not giving away too much to report Jenna, the hard-working waitress and pie baker, comes up pregnant early in the show. She doesn’t want the baby, and she sure as hell doesn’t want to stay with her abusive jerk of a husband. Waitress coworkers give her moral support, but then she encounters an unprofessional gynecologist whose behavior ought to get his medical license suspended.

Like many musicals and plays today, even ones not based on films, the show has a cinematic structure. This means lots of scene changes from the diner to someplace else back to the diner to someplace else back to the diner to someplace else, repeat and repeat. Fortunately, these peregrinations are accomplished smoothly and efficiently thanks to Scott Pask’s rolling set design.

The likeable Christine Dwyer plays Jenna. She has a sweet voice and lots of stage time. As her waitress coworkers, Ephie Aardema (the spacy one) and Maiesha McQueen (the sassy one) are strong. Steven Good is the gynecologist, the most insidiously unlikeable character you’ll see for a while. Matt DeAngelis does a fine job as one in a long line of abusive husbands in plays and movies.

Ryan G. Dunkin plays the diner’s head cook and manager, and he looks and sounds more like a real diner cook you would see around here than like a professional musical theater artist. And that’s meant as a high compliment. The wacky-acting Jeremy Morse is the wacky Ogie, a character who seems to exist solely for comic relief but comes off as creepily peculiar, although I must concede many audience members may see him as endearingly droll.

A fine, four-piece onstage combo plays Bareilles’s light rock-pop-folksy score. The songs evaporate into the thin air as soon as they end, although the first act’s “Club Knocked Up” is cheeky.

In the first three minutes of the reviewed performance, a large glass bowl fell off a rolling cart and shattered mid-stage. I don’t think this was a planned part of the production. As the cast went gamely on with the show, people wearing headsets came out with dustpans and brooms to sweep up the shards. It took five tries to complete the job. It was the most interesting part of the show.

Waitress by Jessie Nelson (book) and Sara Bareilles (music and lyrics)
OKC Broadway
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday,
2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Sunday, through March 24
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
201 N. Walker Ave.
Tickets $38-$107
405-594-8300

Review: A Bronx Tale

Joe Barbara (l) and Joey Barreiro in A Bronx Tale              Photo by Joan Marcus

By Larry Laneer
March 7, 2019

In this age of tawdriness and meretriciousness from the White House (especially the White House) on down, it’s nice to see a musical of genuine authenticity. The case in point is A Bronx Tale, now at the Thelma Gaylord in the OKC Broadway touring series.

The actor Chazz Palminteri wrote the book for this musical version of his 1989 one-man play of the same title, while musical theater veterans Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics) created the score. A Broadway production ran from 2016 until last August. This is the touring version of that show. Both productions were directed by Robert De Niro (yes, that Robert De Niro) and Jerry Zaks (yes, musical-theater queens, that Jerry Zaks). De Niro also directed a 1993 film adaptation.

The show begins in 1960, and by a half-hour into the first act, the action has skipped to 1968. It tells the story of Calogero, a young man of Sicilian heritage growing up in the Bronx where you might see someone shot to death in front of your stoop. His father drives a city bus, and his mother keeps house. Calogero gets some questionable mentoring, meets an unlikely girl, and faces tragedy while still in his teens. It’s a coming-of-age story, Bronx-style in the tumultuous 1960s.

The honesty of the story, musicological accuracy of the score, and artistry of the design combine for a complete whole. No, this is not a deep musical of profound ideas, but it is a nostalgic entertainment that will appeal to a lot of us, even if just a little bit. Palminteri is not above a few corny jokes. His test of what makes a prospective girlfriend “one of the great ones” will be familiar to anyone who was a teen driver (or distaff passenger) in the era. Hint: it has to do with unlocking a car door.

Joey Barreiro (sounds like a character name in the show) plays Calogero, who is our narrator and guide. He’s a fine singer and actor and carries the show with ease. At the reviewed performance, Joey Calveri played Sonny, a local hot shot adored by Calogero. Calveri walked the stage with appropriate swagger.

Michael Barra, Robert Pieranunzi, and Paul Salvatoriello are terrific as wise guys (in the mob sense) whose character names I won’t reveal here. A sweet Brianna-Marie Bell plays the girlfriend.

The designers of this production are stars in their own right. With only a door and a three-step stoop, Beowulf Boritt’s emblematic scenic design suggests an entire Bronx apartment building. An iconic streetlamp figures prominently in the design. Vivid backdrops in red and black look like pen-and-ink drawings. Costumes by William Ivey Long blend into the story with period accuracy. Gareth Owen’s sound design assumes a big role late in the show.

 A ten-piece pit band plays the rock, pop, doo-wop score. You probably won’t walk out of the theater humming any of the tunes, but the score sounds period accurate.

The show’s ending drips with earnestness. One more unison step by the cast downstage during the finale, “The Choices We Make,” and it would go over the edge into maudlin. But for all the honest, edgy story that came before, theatergoers can forgive a flirt with sappiness. This show is old-fashioned storytelling well done. It’s a nice two hours of theater.

A Bronx Tale by Chazz Palminteri (book), Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics)
OKC Broadway
7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday,
2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Sunday, through March 10
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
201 N. Walker Ave.
$27.16-$96.90
405-594-8300

Review: Girlfriend

Jimmy Mavrikes (l) and Ian Marcontell in Girlfriend    Photo by KO Rinearson

By Larry Laneer
March 2, 2019

On paper, Girlfriend looks like a fairly good idea: A sweet little jukebox musical about two Nebraskan young men who find themselves attracted to each other right after high school graduation and their journey toward self-awareness of their own sexuality, done in about 90 minutes. In execution, however, the show is snail-paced and flat emotionally.

Now at the Plaza in a Lyric Theatre production, Girlfriend gets its songs from a 1991 album of the same title by Matthew Sweet (unknown to me). Todd Almond wrote the book. The production is a collaboration between Lyric and the Washington, D.C., Signature Theatre. Matthew Gardiner (who staged Lyric’s successful West Side Story in 2017) directed both productions.

Ian Marcontell plays Mike, the jock, while Jimmy Mavrikes is Will, the nerd. Mavrikes is a Washington, D.C., actor who played the role at Signature. Marcontell studies drama at Oklahoma City University. Both are boyishly handsome, have strong singing voices, are proficient actors, and would have credible romantic chemistry, if such a thing were possible in this leaden show.

The onstage band of Britt Bonney (keyboard/conductor), Taylor Yancey (bass), Susannah Leonard (drums), and Bat-Or Kalo (guitar) is fully visible at the back of the stage through a mesh screen in Misha Kachman’s sharp, spare scenic design. LED lights frame the screen, and Frank Labovitz’s lighting design comes in a pleasing, multi-hued palette. It’s a fine-looking show. Ryan Hickey’s sound design does an excellent job of establishing various locations, from the country with chirping crickets to a baseball park where it sounds like a batter whacks a homerun out of the stadium and many more sites.

First staged in 2010, the show has an unusual, for these days, minimum of profanity. Nothing more provocative than “go fly a kite” until the last few minutes when we get a “fuck off” (Mike) and a “fucking” (Will). This musical is really pretty mild stuff. That’s the problem. The show creates no dramatic tension as Mike and Will awkwardly try to figure out things about themselves. It’s a slow drag to the end that seems much longer than 90 minutes. About half the audience gave the show a perfunctory standing ovation at curtain calls.

But, still, it was odd to see eight audience members walk out during the reviewed performance last Thursday. All left during the final third of the show. The first two went out right after the boys’ first kiss, an innocent peck in which their lips barely touch. It’s a mystery why anyone would take offense at these cute lads having a lukewarm kiss, if, indeed, that’s what happened. I think boredom drove out the other six. Now, that’s understandable.

Girlfriend by Todd Almond (book) and Matthew Sweet (music and lyrics)
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8:00 p.m. Fridays, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through March 17
Plaza Theatre
1725 N.W. 16th St.
$25
405-524-9312