There’s an episode of the 1980s TV series “thirtysomething” wherein best friends Hope and Ellyn are discussing infidelity. Unhappily single Ellyn is sleeping with somebody else’s husband. Happily married Hope finds this reprehensible. Ellyn gives her withering look and a paraphrase from 19th century historian Henry Adams. Not everybody, Ellyn asserts, can afford the luxury of conventional morality.
When: Through July 22
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph
Run time: Two hours, 30 minutes including one intermission
“Waitress” makes that same point. Based on the 2007 movie (screenplay by Adrienne Shelly) of the same name, the musical from singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles (music and lyrics) and Jessie Nelson (book) definitely veers toward schmaltz. But directed by Diane Paulus, it’s infused with humor, joy and originality.
The plot centers on diner waitress and baking wonder Jenna (Desi Oakley). Jenna is married to Earl (Nick Bailey), a right bastard who is dangerously abusive. Jenna’s sole escape lies in creating pies tasty enough to erase life’s sorrows. Or so it is until she embarks on a torrid affair with her gynecologist Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart). The illicit relationship fills Jenna with happiness and fulfillment she hasn’t felt in decades. It also sparks an existential crisis: Jenna’s constant questioning as to whether “happy enough is happy enough” will have you pondering your own life-shaping compromises and whether they were worth it.
Here’s the main problem with “Waitress”: It takes a soft-focus, extremely rosy-hued lens to the end result of an unexpected, unwanted pregnancy. In “Waitress,” the moment a new mother holds the baby she’s spent the show dreading, a choir of angels (or a crew of decidedly angelic-sounding vocalists) start singing. The baby instantly transforms her mother from cowering domestic doormat into a ferociously empowered heroine. And oh yes: The birth also delivers a financial windfall. Without the baby, Jenna was trapped. With the baby, she can afford to pursue happiness in ways that don’t involve married men or living with an abusive tyrant. Post-baby, conventional morality becomes a luxury Jenna can afford.
It’s quite the evolution. When Jenna first finds out she’s pregnant, her response is a despondent “oh s—.” Despite this, abortion never is mentioned, which seems improbable given the show’s contemporary setting, the pair close female confidantes Jenna has in her co-workers and the utter despair with which she greets the pregnancy test kit results. Still, “Waitress” has a sweetness and a spirit that – like a well-made pie – are all but impossible to resist.
Much of that is due to Bareilles’ intricate score and the cast’s delivery of it. When Oakley unleashes the money notes on “She Used to Be Mine,” it’s glorious. The power ballad carries similar force to “Defying Gravity,” and while Jenna doesn’t rise up on the wings of a cape in a wind machine, you’ll feel like she does. As Dr. Pomatter, Fenkart is nerdy and appealing. His gangly charisma is irresistible, especially in the heartfelt “You Matter to Me.”
“Waitress” is also very funny. Much of the humor comes from choreographer Lorin Latarro, who can take characters from “50 Shades” eroticism (“Bad Idea”) to positively goofy (“I Love You Like a Table.”) Only a gifted artist could turn the iconic “George Washington Crossing the Delaware” into an image of unbridled eroticism.
The supporting cast is fabulous. “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” is basically a major-key version of “Every Breath You Take,” aka, the stalker song. But when Ogie (Jeremy Morse) sings and dances his ode to waitress Dawn (a marvelously daffy Lenne Klingaman), he fills it with the rubber-limbed charm of a latter-day Ray Bolger. When married waitress Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) moves in for a carnal embrace with cook Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin) in “I Didn’t Plan It,” she brings both the pheromones and the belt. Villainous Earl is underwritten, but Bailey makes him genuinely frightening and ultimately pathetic. And as curmudgeonly diner owner Joe, Larry Marshall is a winning mix of get-off-my-lawn-era Clint Eastwood and a biblical Solomon the Wise.
Everyone benefits from the airtight, six-piece onstage band (conducted by Nadia DiGiallonardo opening night, Jenny Cartney at some performances).
Whether you’re #teampie or #teamcake in the great, enduring debate over desserts, you’ll find plenty to love.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.