Hearing the opening notes of Sara Bareilles’ score to Waitress—a haunting a capella theme “Sugar, butter, flour” that repeats throughout the show—reminded me more of Radiolab’s evocative, experimental chamber choir pieces than of a Broadway musical.
The opening number quickly takes on a more musical-theater sound, the modern likes of which you may have heard in Once or Next to Normal, fulfilling an opening number’s traditional duty of introducing the main characters and situating us in time and place. But despite the somewhat recognizable structure of this musical comedy—which is based on the final film by budding indie filmmaker Adrienne Shelly before her untimely passing at the age of 40 in 2006—Waitress is in most ways a quirky, refreshing, and unusual show with music to match.
The show remains on Broadway after two seasons and the touring production just arrived at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theater on Wednesday, and in all ways but one (I’ll get to this in a moment) it feels well polished and dynamic, thanks in no small part to the skilled direction of Broadway vet Diane Paulus (Pippin, Hair, Finding Neverland).
Jenna (played by Christine Dwyer, who recently appeared with Bareilles in NBC’s live concert version of Jesus Christ Superstar), is a waitress at a roadside diner in an unnamed southern town that specializes in pies, all of which she bakes each morning and gives personalized names (e.g. “White Knuckle Cream Pie”). We immediately learn in the show’s opening that she is pregnant, and while the baby is unwanted, it was conceived with her current husband Earl (Matt DeAngelis). Jenna is comforted by her fellow waitresses and friends, Dawn (Jessie Shelton), and Becky (Charity Angel Dawson), and we’re soon introduced to the owner of the diner and its most difficult daily customer, Joe (Larry Marshall), and the prickly line cook and manager Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin). We also meet Jenna’s OB/GYN, Dr. Pomatter (played endearingly by Bryan Fenkart), who [SPOILER] quickly becomes Jenna’s accidental lover.
The best songs in the show are the ones that hew closest to Bareillis’s own pop music, with a couple of Jenna’s solos (“What Baking Can Do” and “She Used to Be Mine”) and the trio numbers by the waitresses (“The Negative” and “A Soft Place to Land”) being standouts. Playing the comically self-centered and abusive Earl, DeAngelis does fine work with his Act One solo number “You Will Be Mine.” But stealing the show every performance will be Jeremy Morse as Dawn’s online love interest Ogie, in a bouncing, mincing, scenery-chewing role that earned Morse’s Broadway counterpart a Tony nomination. His song “Never Ever Getting Rid Of Me” is also a testament to Bareillis’ comic abilities in writing for the stage.
The swiftly changing set by Scott Pask (one of the only members of the creative team who is not female), incorporates the show’s small band onstage for most of the performance — the piano doubles as a pie stand — and cleverly evokes a rural roadside through broad-paned windows across the rear.
If I have one main complaint it was that the orchestration, or the sound mixing at the Golden Gate, made too much of the music sound muted and barely there.
Ultimately it is the script by Jessie Nelson, based on Shelly’s film, that gives the show its idiosyncratic thrust, with its unlikely lovers, realistic twists, and unconventional ending. Earl feels a bit like a cartoon, and that may be a flaw, but Jenna, her friends, and Dr. Pomatter all feel like fully fleshed out, complicated characters like we rarely see in Broadway shows, especially ones with such light, crowd-pleasing motives as this one. They are characters more at home in the colorful corners of indie film, where Shelly cut her teeth as a young actress turned filmmaker. And so perhaps it is her that we should most thank, posthumously, for adding new insight into how a modern Broadway story can be told.
This article originally appeared on Opening Night SF.