Review: ‘Waitress’ is the delightful culmination of astounding talent

In Waitress, most of the show’s action takes place in Joe’s Diner, where three of the musical’s main characters — Jenna (Desi Oakley), Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) and Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) — are waitresses. But the diner does much more than just serve Jenna’s infamous pies to its customers. It’s where love is found, discoveries about the characters are made, fights are had, and yes, a lot of pies are baked.

But Scott Pask’s scene design and Ken Billington’s lighting design (both of which are flawless) aren’t the only things that bring the diner to life. There’s also singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles’ score and lyrics, Jessie Nelson’s book, Diane Paulus’ direction, and Lorin Latarro’s choreography. And of course, Jenna, Dawn and Becky. Oh, and the group of musicians onstage, who seamlessly weave their way in and out of scenes.

Waitress — which appropriately premiered at the Wharton Center on National Pie Day, and was inspired by the Adrienne Shelly 2007 film — mainly follows Jenna, an expert pie maker (who creates a new pie every day for the diner) in a very unhappy marriage to Earl (Nick Bailey). Soon into the musical, the audience and Jenna both find out she’s pregnant with Earl’s baby after a drunken night. Things get a little complicated after that when she falls for her OB/GYN, Dr. Jim Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart, who is wonderfully neurotic). Then, when she decides to enter a baking contest in a nearby county, Jenna has to decide what will really make her happy, and not just “happy-enough happy,” but really, truly happy.

Throughout the musical, every time Jenna creates a pie, the three words “sugar, butter and flour” are sung in the background like a mantra. No matter what is happening in her life, this is Jenna’s happy place, and it quickly becomes the audience’s too.

Speaking of Jenna, Oakley is superb from opening note to final bow. She’s got the pipes to raise the rooftop off of the Wharton Center, which she does again and again, like in the Act II show-stopping ballad “She Used to Be Mine.” She’s also the show’s dramatic core, especially during the quieter moments, where audiences watch her trying to grapple with the situation she’s gotten herself into. Those somber moments are gut-wrenching, and she doesn’t even have to say anything out loud, the devastating look spreading across her face says it all.

Then there’s Klingaman’s Dawn and Dawson’s Becky, both showstoppers in their own right. Thankfully, they each get a chance to shine during their respective solos, “When He Sees Me” and “I Didn’t Plan It.” And when Oakley, Klingaman and Dawson harmonize together, get ready to swoon. The three have amazing chemistry throughout the show, whether it be when they’re singing one of the show’s upbeat group numbers (the musical is filled with pop music) or simply chatting with each other.

The show also has a lot of really wonderful comedic moments — like every time Jeremy Morse’s Ogie is on stage. (Morse also played the role on Broadway.) At the end of his solo during Act I, “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” my face hurt from all the smiling I had been doing.

The quartet of a creative team — Bareilles, Nelson, Paulus and Latarro — have not only created a delightful musical but have made history. Waitress is the first Broadway musical in history with an all-female creative team. And they have created a group of people, especially the women, who feel like real folks with real problems. They are imperfect, but they try. They are a little messy but kind. And they know how to make a delicious pie.

Wharton Center
750 E. Shaw Ln, East Lansing
Jan. 24-28