Photo: Philicia Endelman
Early in the stage production of “Waitress,” onstage now through April 14 at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, the central character makes a slip of the tongue. Jenna, a waitress at a diner somewhere just off of Interstate 70, has just found out she’s pregnant after two of her coworkers drag her into the diner’s bathroom, intervention style. They suspect the pregnancy because of Jenna’s nausea, and maybe Jenna does too, but she can’t handle anything else in her life just now and can’t allow something like a pregnancy to add to the pile.
When: Through April 14
Where: Walton Arts Center
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or tickets.waltonartscenter.org
Asked by her boss what the specialty pie of the day is, Jenna responds by telling him it’s the “deep shit blueberry bacon.” “Deep shit?” her coworker, Cal, wonders aloud.
“Deep dish,” Jenna corrects herself.
Ah, yes, but you must excuse Jenna at the moment for the tongue twister. The pregnancy comes from a loveless marriage, and any personal aspirations of hers are tempered by the realities of her current situation. She’s a waitress who works at a middle-of-nowhere diner. Her husband is unemployed and abusive, at least mentally and probably physically, too.
Her situation isn’t unlike her mother’s life, as Jenna grew up in an abusive household. But the other thing she shares with her mother is the art of making a pie, which we learn quickly could be Jenna’s ticket to something – or somewhere – else. The town’s consensus is that Jenna’s pies are life changing. She hopes they might be.
But she doesn’t make things easier on herself, either. Soon after her first check-in with the town’s new doctor, Jenna (played on tour by Christine Dwyer) adds one more complication to the situation. After a tenuous first meeting, Jenna and Dr. Pomatter (played by Steven Good) realize some of their awkwardness is chemistry. They start a semi-secret affair, with silence from those in the know bought courtesy of some charm and/or delicious pies.
There’s an underlying simplicity to all of this, and there’s a little bit of the trope-filled reductivism at work in many of the characters. Jenna’s two best friends are fellow waitresses at the diner. One is the glasses-wearing, “History Channel”-watching nerd girl, Dawn, who lacks the self-confidence to do just about anything but portray Betsy Ross in re-enactments. The other is the sassy black woman who is not going to take your crap today, thank you very much – that would be Becky. They are all managed at the diner by the gruff, motorcycle-riding, bandana-wearing Cal, who needs them to hurry up and do their jobs already. There’s also Jenna’s do-nothing husband Earl, who is such a terrible human that the crowd considered booing him at the curtain call.
These forays into stock character oversimplifications are more forgivable when well done. And that’s generally our case in this touring production. Maiesha McQueen, to name just one, was very good as Becky, particularly in her solo number to kick off the second act.
Photo: Philicia Endelman
As it is with many Broadway musicals, the first act must be excused for serving as the setup for bigger things to come in the second half of the production. The first six minutes drags slightly, and provides a song that left me uncomfortable on several levels. Dawn’s date, Ogie, shows up at the diner and begs to be served by her, much to her protests. She asks him to leave, and we’re greeted with Ogie’s song “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.” Good friends of Dawn would have sent the man out the door immediately. But Ogie’s awkwardness is a good match for Dawn’s dueling identity as introverted and zany, which means Ogie’s infatuation is eventually met with the response you’d expect.
Jeremy Morse’s wildly over the top take on Ogie provides a punch of humor in the play. His poetry-reciting, inhaler-using, crazy-armed dance number was absolutely devoured by the Walton Arts Center crowd. I’m reminded of the classic Monty Python retort from “Holy Grail” when a wizard (of sorts) breathlessly tells the knights of the terrors that await their quest – “What an eccentric performance.”
Just know that “Waitress” can be funny when it wants to be funny, despite the heap of troubles facing Jenna and the rest of the crew. Life can be depressing and funny at all once, and that duality is the central idea of the show’s best number. “She Used to be Mine,” which like the rest of the songs was written by pop star Sara Bareilles, captures the idea that life is complicated, kind of like making a pie. It’s the only thing Jenna knows how to do; everything else in her life feels as hard as finding the money to travel to an upcoming pie contest that awards enough prize money to give her a clean start.
So when Dr. Pomatter insists on learning how to make a pie from Jenna, it means something to both of them. She proceeds to roll out pie dough in front of the audience while we watch perhaps their most intimate moment. This is a show that cares much about details, with dramatic ingredient pours and constant, subtle, dance-y movements from the ensemble. No one gets a moment off during the show, which also features on on-stage rock band.
Jenna’s pies do eventually change several lives, hers included, although not in the way she might have imagined. This show has a list of familiar ingredients, despite the whimsical names Jenna attaches to her creations. But folded together under a fancy lattice crust, it’s all pretty easy to digest. Who doesn’t like delicious pies?