Theater

Review: 'Waitress' excels

On July 3 “Waitress”, the Broadway musical, finally reached Chicago for a limited three-week run earning enthusiastic cheers and applause from the opening night audience. Theatergoers were greeted by a cherry lattice pie stage curtain and a turn-off-your-cellphone message (Bareilles rewrote part of her original song “Cassiopeia”) which set the stage for the colorful, melodic delights to come.

“Waitress” made history on Broadway in April 2016 with its four top creative spots filled by women. Original music and lyrics were composed by six-time Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles and the book was written by screenwriter Jessie Nelson. Stage direction is by Diane Paulus with choreography by Lorin Latarro. Women also contributed the costume design (Suttirat Anne Larlarb) and musical supervision (Nadia Digiallonardo).

Inspired by Adrienne Shelly's 2007 indie film of the same name, “Waitress” tells the story of Jenna, a waitress and expert baker of eccentric pies, who is desperate for a way out of her abusive marriage. She believes a pie baking contest and its grand prize will provide an opportunity for her escape. The town's new doctor also offers hope for a fresh start.

Scott Pask's clever set design expedites enjoyable, choreographed scene changes. Much of the show takes place in Joe's Diner where Jenna (Desi Oakley) bakes pies and waits tables along with timid Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) and brassy Becky (Charity Angél Dawson). Their friendship is at the heart of the show and immediately inspires audience loyalty. Short order cook Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin) manages the joint and owner Joe (Larry Marshall) is a regular, difficult customer. The six-member orchestra often appears onstage to thrilling effect.

Other scenes take place at the home Jenna shares with her controlling husband Earl (Nick Bailey) and the office of nervous newcomer Dr. Pomatter (Bran Fenkart) who is ably assisted by observant Nurse Norma (Maiesha McQueen). One of the pleasures of this show is that these eight characters and Dawn's enthusiastic suitor Ogie (Jeremy Morse) are all superbly showcased, both vocally and comedically, by the creative team. Each one of them enjoys a star turn.

Bareilles' original pop score provides a series of showstoppers for this ideal cast. Jenna wows with her muscular vocals on “She Used To Be Mine” and throughout the show; Dawn is hilariously featured in “When He Sees Me”; Becky cuts loose on “I Didn't Plan It”; Ogie stops the show with “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” and rightfully earns exit applause. Crazy vocals by Oakley and Fenkart in the the Act One finale, “Bad Idea”, are particularly notable. Bareilles is a singer/songwriter who knows how to write for singing actors. She also supervised the orchestrations. Her fresh voice is distinct in her first foray into writing for the musical theatre and leaves one wanting more.

While the original score is thrillingly sung and orchestrated, the comedy is also exploited to the utmost degree. Waves of laughter convulse viewers from beginning to end. Amid all the merriment, Jenna's dilemma is presented truthfully.

The audience takes Jenna's happiness seriously and approves of her difficult decisions. Director Paulus has imaginatively staged this dynamic, comic confection with a sense of magical realism. Choreographer Latarro contributes many original, amusing touches involving pie carts, a couch, baking ingredients and diner supplies. This production excels in every possible way.

• Richard Pahl has worked as an actor and director for more than 40 years. While serving two terms on Elgin's Cultural Arts Commission, he produced its Page To Stage play reading series. He recently directed "Spinning Into Butter" for Janus Theatre, "Making God Laugh" and a staged reading of "Peggy's Birth Day" at Steel Beam Theatre. He is slated to direct “Over the River and Through the Woods” for ETC early next year.

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