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