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Sweet but not saccharine, 'Waitress' wows at Shea's

The sweet aroma of freshly baked pies greeted visitors to Shea's Performing Arts Center, where the popular Broadway confection known as "Waitress" opened its six-day run on Feb. 6.

As theatergoers filtered into the auditorium, a gigantic backdrop of a lattice-top cherry pie announced the all-American nature of what they were about to see. Even a singsong warning about turning off cell phones was pitched exactly at the eardrums of average Americans rather than some effete Broadway elite.

If ever there was a Broadway show ideally suited to the road, from Buffalo to Madison, Wisc. to Fort Worth, Texas, it is this small-scale story about big dreams deferred in a society suffering from a dozen different kinds of latent sexism.

"Waitress" -- both the 2007 Adrienne Shelly film and this musical collaboration among composer-lyricist Sara Bareilles, director Diane Paulus and choreographer Lorin Latarro -- is too easily dismissed because of its rote dialogue, an improbable plot and an impossibly folksy disposition. You half-expect Garrison Keillor to emerge from the wings to deliver a monologue.

But there is an innate charm to the piece that most highly polished Broadway properties -- the ones that follow formula at the expense of soul -- fail to achieve. (I'm looking at you, "Wicked.")

This touring production, starring the irresistible Desi Oakley as a down-on-her-luck waitress struggling to free herself from an abusive marriage with a loser named Earl (the love-to-hateable Nick Bailey) is shot through with hyper-exaggerated Americana.

Ryan G. Dunkin, left, plays the quirky character Cal in "Waitress."

Its pristine sets, designed by Scott Pask, feature rambling backdrops out of Edward Hopper, with sprawling telephone wires stretching across a rural landscape bathed in perpetual twilight. And the center of the action takes place in a pie shop, complete with a retro neon sign, where the cheeky banter seems to have arrived completely intact from an episode of "Rosanne."

Against this surfeit of nostalgia, the story of "Waitress" unfolds with surprising momentum and grace in the first act, but drags in the second.

In "Opening Up," an all-ensemble number driven by Latarro's clockwork choreography, we meet a lovable cast of characters: There's Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), the gruff but lovable manager of the diner; the imperturbable waitress Becky (Charity Angél Dawson, to be replaced for the rest of the run by Maiesha McQueen) and her neurotic colleague Dawn (Lenne Klingaman); and the curmudgeonly owner of the pie shop (the gleeful Larry Marshall), whose comic relief is a highlight of the production.

And at the center of it all is Jenna (Oakley), who bakes all of her hopes and problems into her pies instead of facing them head-on. This all changes when she discovers to her dismay that she is pregnant -- "I do stupid things when I drink, like sleep with my husband," she says.

Charity Angel Dawson, left, appears with Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman in the touring version of "Waitress."

That's when things start to go off the rails creditibility-wise, as Jenna begins an illicit love affair with her gynecologist (Bryan Fenkart). Enough said.

Bareilles' score is one of the more refreshing pieces of writing Broadway has heard in recent years.

While it brims with her particular brand of major key, California optimism, it is also tinged with the melodic influence of musical theater greats like Alan Menken ("The Little Mermaid"), William Finn ("Falsettos," "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee") and even Jonathan Larson ("Rent"). The result, aside from four of five extraneous numbers that land in the muddy middle territory between Broadway and pop, is a delight. Not bad for her first time out.

Highlights include "What Baking Can Do," Jenna's paean to the therapeutic benefits of baking, and "When He Sees Me," Dawn's insanely neurotic song about the difficulty of finding a suitable boyfriend.

The performances in this tour are uniformly excellent.

As Jenna, Oakley can belt with the best of them. But even more importantly, she has all the humor and charm of your favorite waitress, plus the emotional depth of your favorite screen star. As fellow waitresses Dawn and Becky, Klingaman and Dawson are perfectly at ease. And as Dr. Pomatter, Fenkart is equally adept at physical comedy, actual comedy and the vocal challenges of numbers like "You Matter to Me," a duet with Jenna that sent the audience into ecstasy.

Also excellent is Jeremy Morse as Ogie, the eccentric love interest for Dawn. He bounces off the walls in "Never Ever Getting Rid of Me," in a performance evocative of Donald O'Connor in "Singin' in the Rain."

While the show feels about three or four songs too long, its charm and energy are undeniable. And the fact that its producers reached into the pop world to recruit Bareilles to write her first Broadway score bodes well for a medium desperate for new blood.

"Waitress"

3 stars (out of 4)

Runs through Feb. 11 in Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. Tickets are $32 to $80. Call Call 847-0850 or visit sheas.org.

 

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