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Theater review: ‘Waitress’ mixes up a delicious confection for theater fans

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 13, 2018

Take flavors that are sweet and tart, like a good key lime. Mix it with characters well worn and comfortable. Stir in a dash of vinegar for some bite. Bake it into an entertaining and heartwarming confection.

This is the recipe for “Waitress,” the touring Broadway show playing at the First Interstate Center for the Arts through Sunday.

Based on the 2007 movie from late actress-writer Adrienne Shelly, “Waitress” tells the story of Jenna, a diner waitress and pie-baking genius trapped in an unhappy life. Unexpectedly expecting, thanks to a drunken night with her lout of a husband, Earl, Jenna dreams of winning a big pie baking contest and using the prize money to start a new life. With the help of her friends and fellow waitresses Becky and Dawn, and a new sense of the possibilities offered by her doctor, Jenna begins to see the path forward for her and her baby.

There’s a familiarity to “Waitress,” and not just from its namesake movie. Joe’s Pie Diner and the people who work there are reminiscent of Mel’s on the old sitcom “Alice,” and the Martin Scorsese film that inspired it. That book writer Jessie Nelson resisted having the sassy Becky spout “Kiss my grits!” is a good thing.

But what “Waitress” lacks in depth, it makes up for with charm and pluck, and with catchy songs from singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles well-performed by a talented cast.

As Jenna, Christine Dwyer is spot on. Her singing is impeccable, and she brings a bone-weariness to Jenna that is completely believable. Her gorgeous first act solo, “What Baking Can Do,” brings her past into focus and helps explain how she married Earl, an abusive and controlling jerk played menacingly by a terrific Matt DeAngelis (Dwyer’s real-life fiance). Their ominous duet “You Will Still Be Mine” is chilling.

For all the bleak aspects of her life, there’s a bit of whimsy to Jenna. Her internal monologue often involves inventing unusual pies to match her mood and the situation around her, such as Jenna’s Betrayed by my Eggs Pie or Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie. Those moments are one of the many delights of “Waitress.”

Others include Steven Good as Dr. Pomatter, Jenna’s OB/GYN and paramour. Pomatter’s an odd guy, and Good plays the odd quite well. Plus, he and Dwyer sound great together, especially in the delightful number “It Only Takes a Taste.”

Also delightful are Jessie Shelton as the ditzy waitress Dawn and Maiesha McQueen as the feisty Becky. Their performance with Dwyer of “A Soft Place to Land” is a real highlight. The three sound gorgeous together.

But it’s Ogie who really brings the laughs. Played by Jeremy Morse, a veteran of the Broadway cast, Ogie is an oddball who falls hard for Dawn, also an oddball, after one 5-minute date. His number “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” would be creepy if it weren’t so funny.

Brooklyn Wells, one of two area 4-year-old girls cast as Lulu, Jenna’s daughter, was adorable on Wednesday night. She’ll share the role with Remy Reith, who lives in Cheney.

As Joe, the diner’s cranky and flirtatious owner, Larry Marshall makes quite an impression. A veteran of 15 Broadway shows, and a Tony nominee for his work as Sportin’ Life in the 1977 production of “Porgy and Bess,” Marshall brings a strong emotional center and a light comedic touch to his performance. His singing of “Take it From an Old Man” was beautiful.

I’m glad I got to see one of his final performances on the tour. Marshall is scheduled to be replaced Friday by veteran stage and television actor Richard Kline. Kline, who appeared on Broadway in “City of Angles” and toured as the wizard in “Wicked” for a year, is perhaps best known from his work as Larry, Jack Tripper’s friend and neighbor on the 1970s sitcom “Three’s Company.”

Kline’s comedic skills will be put to good use in “Waitress,” which for all its dark themes, is surprisingly funny. Think of it as laughing through tears – or in Jenna’s case making lemonade pie out of lemons.

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