Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Soapy, pie-y ‘Waitress' visiting Appleton

Fox Cities Performing Arts Center

APPLETON, Wis. -  

 

Jenna Hunterson has a knack for dilemmas. She got drunk one night and sweetened up in her marriage-gone-sour. Result: She’s pregnant. Jenna’s choice to keep the baby leads her to a male gynecologist, which leads to a more-than-cozy patient/doctor situation.

This is the basis for a musical. In this piece of entertainment, “Waitress,” the young-and-restless drama keeps coming.

That’s one take on the touring show that is visiting Thrivent Financial Hall of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center for seven more performances through Sunday, Dec. 3.

Opening night Tuesday played to a standing ovation. “Waitress” has a certain way of clicking.

Perhaps it’s because, for once, this is a musical about a regular person. There are a lot of waitresses in the world, and what happens with Jenna is not far off of many stories. And this story comes with searching songs. In “She Used to Be Mine,” Jenna reflects on the ownership she once had, and is now gone, of her life and dreams.

Let it be known that in “Waitress” everything unfolds in Broadway-ish ways. This drama comes with song-and-dance sequences and comic relief (great stuff, by the way) and theatricality in presentation and character.

Jenna’s gift for pie-making is a key part of the story. Jenna works at a diner someplace in the South. Pies are a main attraction at the diner, and innovation in pie-making is Jenna’s constant positive. Eventually, her goal becomes to enter a pie-making contest and win and then walk away from crumb-bum husband, Earl.

Earl once was nice but has changed, Jenna says. Earl is possessive – grabbing Jenna’s tips as his own, demanding her love of him above that of the coming child and commanding a me-first role in Jenna’s life. In short, Jenna is trapped by Earl.

Visits to the Hunterson home are chilling.

The diner, on the other hand, is a frisky place. There’s always something going on. Joe, the owner, is a craggy kind of guy as he fusses about his food order and pontificates on people and life. Cal, the short order cook, is a gruff sort who continually is on the waitresses to get a move on it. The three waitresses – ahhh – they’re the life of the place. Becky has an ailing husband at home, Dawn is quirky and thus single and Jenna, above all else, is burdened by her newly drastically uncertain future.

The language in this workaday slice of life is care-less. The s-bomb is dropped a number of times, to strong effect, notably in Jenna’s response to her pregnancy kit result.

The cast performs, also to strong effect, up and down the roster – though some of the characters are a reach.

Desi Oakley grabs the role of Jenna, digs into her depths and unleashes potent songs. Nick Bailey is a force in the thankless role of the sap, Earl. With Oakley, Charity Angel Dawson (Becky) and Lenne Klingaman (Dawn) dish up delights of teamwork in song and interwoven stories. Of note, Dawson fires off “I Didn’t Plan It” to start the second act. Bryan Fenkart eventually gets to be a person, albeit checkered, as Jenna’s doctor who starts out as a real pill. Ryan G. Dunkin (Cal) has a nifty counter-character bit of silent comedy in Act II. Larry Marshall (the owner, Joe) suddenly has a meaningful song, “Take It from an Old Man.” And, and, and Jeremy Morse is terrific as love-smitten Ogie, whose enthusiasm for Dawn bursts into the doggonedest displays of dance and frenetic-character energy. He even makes a song with a seemingly nonsensical title, “I Love You Like a Table,” make sense. Morse also carefully guides the little local girl (two, for various performances) and helps make her look good in dance and joy.

Technically, the production flows. Bits of backdrops roll in and out, slide in an out, fly down and up in quick order. The band arrives and departs on a sliding platform – an unusual setup.

Jenna’s pie-making skills are hinted at. Sometimes she sings song as she and others put together ingredients of something Jenna’s character would call “Showbiz Faux Pie.” (Out in the lobby, patrons can get into aprons and wield rolling pins in a kitchen backdrop for fun photo ops). The main “curtain” projection is that of a berry-filled pie, with revolving glass-enclosed pie displays to the sides. The entire stage floor is a tan-and-green checkered effect that says “large diner.”

Certain things struck me Tuesday.

+ A joke line went totally flat. Downplaying Jenna’s gift at imaginative pie-making, Earl tells her, “Let’s face it, you’re no Sara Lee.” Earl holds the store-bought product above a made-from-scratch real deal. Audience response: Zero.

+ A troublesome truism is dropped in: “Most married couples haven’t slept with each other in 15 years.” Don’t hold what the writers of “Waitress” say as gospel.

+ My feathers were ruffled. Talking with the other waitresses about the coming baby, Jenna says, “We don’t know if it’s a she. It could be an alien.” As a man, I take that as an insult. It is a cheap, stereotypical joke. It’s only a passing joke in the show, but it made me think poorly of what the creators take men for.

Overall, “Waitress” has a whole lot to it. Stories interlace, all with complications. The stage version even seems to have unspoken messages in it about diversity. It’s all a different type of entertainment. And, again, Ogie is a blast.

***

Creative: Music and lyrics – Sara Bareilles; book – Jessie Nelson, based on the 2007 film written by Adrienne Shelly; director – Diane Paulus; set design – Scott Pask; costume design – Suttirat Anne Larlarb; choreographer – Lorin Latarro; music supervision and arrangements – Nadia DiGiallonardo; orchestrations – Sara Bareilles and The Waitress Band; lighting design – Ken Billington; sound design – Jonathan Deans; wig and make-up design – Richard Mawbey

Cast (in order of appearance): Jenna – Desi Oakley; Cal – Ryan G. Dunkin; Dawn – Lenne Klingaman; Becky – Charity Angel Dawson; Joe – Larry Marshall; Earl – Nick Bailey; Mother – Grace Stockdale; Father – Jim Hogan; Nurse Norma – Maiesah McQueen; Dr. Pomatter – Bryan Fenkart; Ogie – Jeremy Morse; Francine – Kyra Kennedy; Lulu (Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday matinee, Sunday evening) – Nora Lou Wallenfang; Lulu (Thursday, Friday, Saturday matinee, Saturday evening) – Adalyn Reddy; Ensemble – Patrick Dunn, Jim Hogan, Kyra Kennedy, Maisha McQueen, Gerianne Pérez, Grace Stockdale

Musicians: Conductor/piano – Jenny Cartney; associate conductor/keyboard – Lilli Wosk; drums – Elena Bonomo; bass – Lexi Bodick; cello/guitar – Nick Anton; guitar – Ed Hamilton; music coordinator – John Miller

Running time: Two hours, 43 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 29-Dec. 1; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Dec. 3

Info: foxcitiespac.org

***

Musical numbers

Act I

“What’s Inside” – Jenna and Company

“Opening Up” – Jenna, Becky, Dawn, Cal and Company

“The Negative” – Jenna, Becky, Dawn

“What Baking Can Do” – Jenna and Company

“Club Knocked Up” – Women

“When He Sees Me” – Dawn and Company

“It Only Takes a Taste” – Dr. Pomatter and Jenna

“You Will Still Be Mine” – Earl and Jenna

“A Soft Place to Land” – Jenna, Becky, Dawn

“Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” – Ogie and Company

“Bad Idea” – Jenna, Dr. Pomatter and Company

Act II

“I Didn’t Plan It” – Becky

“Bad Idea” (Reprise) – Company

“You Matter to Me” – Dr. Pomatter and Jenna

“I Love You Like a Table” – Ogie, Dawn and Company

“Take It from an Old Man” – Joe and Company

“She Used to Be Mine” – Jenna

“Everything Changes” – Jenna and Company

“Opening Up” (Finale) – Company

***

THE VENUE: Thrivent Financial Hall is the main theater of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center on College Avenue in downtown Appleton. The capacity is 2,072. The seating area is in the shape of a horse shoe, with three balconies following the shape. The stage is 60 feet across and 40 feet high. The décor features Veneciano plaster walls with dark-stained cherry wood. In the oval dome ceiling is a 65-foot long chandelier that is reminiscent of the Art Deco era. The design includes ruby inserts in the opaque cream-colored glass. Flowing along the walls up to the chandelier are parallel metal pipes as if of a musical instrument. Flat walls in the front third of the hall are salmon colored, while red pleated theatrical curtains dominate the rest of the side walls. The white acoustic wing over the stage looks like the underside of a sci-fi spacecraft. The lobby area consists of lots of geometrics, glass and, on the ground level, a feeling of openness and spaciousness. The exterior of the gray building features gentle curves. A large glass skylight is reminiscent of a human eye.

THE NAME: Thrivent Financial has roots in a life insurance company that was chartered in 1902 as Aid Association for Lutherans, based in Appleton. The corporate name has been Thrivent since 2002.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words)” and the award-winning “Real, Honest Sailing with a Great Lakes Captain,” are available online and in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.

 


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