Transcendent trio of actors bring touching and funny to a story of sisters

Charity Angel Dawson, Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman

Once upon a time a famous chef – Wolfgang Puck or Julia Childs or Gordon Ramsay – said that “cooking is an art but baking is a science.”

None of those famous people ever had a chance to see the play “Waitress” that opened at the Marcus Center Tuesday night. If they had, they’d realize that baking, at least in this wonderful music, is the highest form of art.

With a transcendent trio of women actors this slice of life (think slice of pie) musical with a book by Jessie Nelson and music and lyrics by Grammy star Sara Bareilles, is as much a testament to a great piece of pie and a cup of coffee as it is to the values of sisterhood that can bind wildly different women together.

This is the story of Jenna (a captivating Desi Oakley), a waitress in Joe’s Pie Diner. She is a woman trapped in a marriage she doesn’t want and finds her predicament grow even more perilous when she discovers that she is pregnant. She’s poor and unskilled and can’t see any path that might lead to somewhere…something better.

The other two members of this waitressing trio are Dawn (a perky and unsure Lenne Klingaman) and Becky (the blithe and worldwise Charity Angel Dawson). The two women join arms, both figuratively and literally to keep Jenna warm after the cold front of the pregnancy blizzard that swirls out of her sky.

Waitress the Musical

“Couch Potato Pie” named for her ne’er do well husband; “Deep (Shit) Dish Blueberry Bacon  Pie” for the mess her pregnancy brings; “I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie.”

Early on Jenna sings to her late (an unseen) mother about the satisfactions of baking her pies.

I’ll place it on display
And then I’ll slice and serve my worries away
I can fix this
I can twist it into sugar, butter covered pieces
Never mind what’s underneath it
I have done it before
I’ll bake me a door to help me get through
I learned that from you
Mama, it’s amazing what baking can do”

The song begins the process of rounding out Jena into a full-fledged woman, trying to find her joys while trying to minimize her sorrows. It’s a treacherous journey, marked by fits and starts, the old one step forward, two steps back.

Those steps take her into the arms of her married and new pediatrician, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart). Their affair is deep and passionate until Jenna discovers that the good doctor is married to another woman, also a doctor.

Jenna’s journey may well be sad and lonely, but it’s populated along the way with some delightful humor.

Ms. Klingaman who has never dated but is now on a dating site gets the laughs off and running on the evening of her first date (which she set up to last five minutes). She both funny and poignant.

What if when he sees me,
I like him and he knows it?
What if he opens up a door,
And I can’t close it
What happens then?
If when he holds me,
My heart is set in motion,
I’m not prepared for that.
I’m scared of breaking open.
But still, I can’t help from hoping,
To find someone to talk to,
Who likes the way I am.
Someone who when he sees me,
Wants to again.”

Ms. Oakley delivers a magnificent performance, full of sorrow, hope, tantalizing determination, fear and courage all in one evening. She is a graceful comedic actor but also has the kind of presence that brings a glorious gravitas to some moments. She’s got a messy life but like so many people, the birth of a child can provide some clarity that strengthens a backbone and clears a hidden path. With Becky and Dawn in the background, Ms. Oakley delivers the moment of the show after catching her first glimpse of her baby.

“Today’s a day like any other
But I am changed, I am a mother
Oh in an instant
And who I was has disappeared
It doesn’t matter, now you’re here
So innocent
I was lost for you to find
And now I’m yours and you are min
Two tiny hands, a pair of eyes
An unsung melody is mine for safekeeping
And I will guard it with my life
I’d hang the moon for it to shine on her sleeping
Starting here and starting now
I can feel the heart of how
Everything changes.”

It’s a very moving song and you can hear Ms.Bareilles sings, “Everything Changes,” here.

“Waitress” runs through Jan. 7.

Production credits: Director, Diane Paulus; Choreographer, Lorin Latarro; Music Supervision, Nadia DiGiallonardo; Orchestrations, Sara Bareilles & The Waitress Band; Set Design, Scott Pask; Costume Design, Suttirat Anne Larlarb; Lighting Designer Ken Billington; Sound Design Jonathan Deans;: Production Stage Manager, Jovon E. Shuck; Production Photographer, Joan Marcus. 

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About davebegel@gmail.com

Theater Critic in Milwaukee.
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