Amidst the Pie, Southern Hearts Shamelessly Collide in ‘Waitress’

Not everybody gets all they want in Waitress, the modest musical salute to virtue now at the Civic Theatre, but most of them end up “happy enough,” as one character says.

We’ll get to all that directly, but first I must address the burning question left for me by this show: How can all these people consume all these pies and still – most of them – stay so skinny?

With book by Jessica Nelson and songs by Sara Bareilles, Waitress is based on a 2007 film of the same name written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly. It’s in its third year on Broadway and this touring version has been on the road since last fall.

The scene is the present, in a generic Southern part of the USA, and the title character is a sweetly generous young woman who has inherited from her mother a talent for making delicious and exotic pies, both sweet and savory. Her practice at Joe’s Pie Shop also includes waiting tables, so she would seem to be in good shape future-wise. Except, when we meet her, she’s confirming worst fears with a drugstore pregnancy test: That drunken evening with her loathsome husband had an unfortunate result.

Her low spousal opinion proves to be justified when the lout shows up at the shop, verbally abusing her and snatching away her tip money like some pimp. His new tattoo celebrates himself and he probably kicks puppies and trips old ladies, too.

There’s no real discussion of an abortion, as our girl and her two associates mull over what to do. Wrong class, not to mention wrong state. She’s stuck with a baby she resents. Flashbacks to her own mother being slapped around underline this dismal scene.

Jessie Shelton, Christine Dwyer and understudy Tatiana Lofton, left to right, in the musical Waitress, at the Civic Theatre for Broadway San Diego.


But then hope gleams. Her doctor is new to town and a dreamboat. Her ditzy colleague has an online date of promise. And Joe, not only the boss but also the most finnicky customer, tells her about a regional pie contest with a $20,000 top prize. The songs get slightly less mournful and everybody seems to be on an upswing of hope.

Of course we don’t meet everybody,  such as the assorted cheated spouses. The general attitude is suggested in a response to the somebody’s question: “What kind of man would leave his wife just because she’s gay?” And hope scorns that dreadful husband, who gets fired for drinking, demands ever more exclusive attention and even threatens to hit our pregnant heroine. (A few of us were ready to rush the stage had he connected, but such creeps are usually cowards, too.)

Life improves in Act II. The ditz and her date achieve rapturous union through shared interests – historic reenactment, turtle collecting and such – and wedding bells are heard in the old pie shop. Significantly, the only unmarried principals are the ones who achieve true bliss. All others learn to settle and, except for the husband creep, seem better for their roads travelled.

There is, true, something of a storybook ending. But modified, as befits characters more real than fantastic. And there’s a sense that all the storylines aren’t yet at an end.

Many of these actors have just assumed their roles and the company is to be commended for the lack of bumps. This suggests the presence on tour of the canny director, Diane Paulus, and the free-wheeling choreographer, Lorin Latarro. Well Done.

Christine Dwyer plays the lead, contrasting wide-eyed vulnerability with steely no-nonsense. As is the case is every corner of the cast (and of musical theatre performers everywhere these days) her singing is practiced and energetic. And her food-handling is acceptable.

Maiesha McQueen is her experienced pal, wielding the rolled eyeball and sassy chin that so becomes that bluesy, real-woman delivery. Jessie Shelton never quite separates the ditz as a stand-alone person but she maintains perkiness even as Jeremy Morse, playing her really weird suitor, nearly steals the show. His is one of those gumdrop roles that musical comedy always treasures, a singer-dancer with endless pep, and Morse eats it up.

Steven Good makes the handsome doctor rather too teeny-bopper for my tastes but he does have the presence and, of course, the voice. Larry Marshall is an admirable all-seasons curmudgeon (with a heart of gold, too) as the old owner, who gets a waltz and a touching song with the heroine.

Ryan G. Dunkin, though stuck in the one-note role of grumpy fry cook, makes his hidden soft spot plausible. And to Matt DeAngelis falls the fate of playing the bad guy, which he does with enough skill to get boos at the curtain calls.

The band, trimmed a bit via a guitar/cello double, is mostly an onstage aid, though somebody might muffle that drummer a bit. It’s hard at first hearing to get much out of Bareilles’ songs, most of which have had earlier lives on albums and such, but I can say they help far more than any threat of hinderance.

Scott Pask supplied the rolling stock of scenery, mostly planted in front of a real nice lonesome-roads type drop. No complaints about the Suttirat Anne Larlarb costumes, except they don’t really include any locale statements, and Ken Billington’s lighting tends to make everything work right.

This does in fact sound like a true report from the outback with only a gloss of fantasy.
(Continues in the Civic Theatre downtown through Dec. 2, 2018.)




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