Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Although there is a fair bit of adultery going on in Waitress, the show is more in line with true "family values" than almost any musical currently playing anywhere. (The two closest current contenders would be Come from Away and The Book of Mormon.) Waitress embodies the ideals of friendship, community, love, self-respect, humility, and commitment to craft in a way that is inspiring without ever feeling preachy or didactic.
Jenna (Christine Dwyer) embodies a sort of hard-working Middle American woman that could all too easily drift into clichéshe works in a diner where her crusty boss Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin) doesn't fully appreciate her and customers have odd demands, but is supported by her co-workers: confident, sassy Becky (Anastacia McCleskey) and geeky, insecure Dawn (Jessie Shelton). But bookwriter Jessie Nelson (working from the story and characters created by Adrienne Shelly, who wrote the movie that inspired the musical) manages to avoid well-worn platitudes and present a set of lovingly drawn characters with stories and dimensions of their own.
There are no great surprises in this plot, which kicks off with Jenna discovering she's pregnant by her lout of a husband Earl (Matt DeAngelis). But Nelson wrings a lot of humor out of what is a very bad situation. The no-nonsense sassy black woman may be a well-worn comic vehicle, but it comes by that wear honestly, because it works: audiences love to see when someone who has been held down stand up for herselfand like it even more when she stands up for a friend.
When Jenna goes to the gynecologist's office and discovers the doctor who has cared for her since birth has recently retired, and been replaced by a hunky young OB-GYN (Bryan Fenkart), her life gets a lot more complicated, fast.
Becky and Jenna form a triumvirate sisterhood with Dawn, whowith the help of her friendsis ready to leap into the world of online dating. Dawn is a dichotomyalmost pathologically shy in some instances, but a performer at heart, having played Betsy Ross multiple times in Revolutionary War re-enactments. When the first hit from her online profile comes from Ogie (Jeremy Morse), and she discovers he has played Paul Revere in similar re-enactments, it's as if Cupid is shooting with a fully automatic bow and their romance explodes in a burst of adorable nerdiness. Though Dawn's shyness keeps her from falling too quickly in love, Ogie pursues her with a Southern charm offensive that feels like a stalkerish Jeff Sessions that reaches its pinnacle in one of the show's best songs, "Never Ever Getting Rid of Me."
The production is marvelous. Bareilles's music, though lacking truly memorable melodies, has a charm of its own, and the close harmonies she creates are thrilling, especially in the hands of the very skilled cast. Several of the songsnotably "She Used to Be Mine" and "A Soft Place to Land"have an undeniable emotional impact. Scott Pask's set allows for smooth transitions between the diner, doctor's office, Jenna and Earl's apartment, and other locations through the swift movement of wagons and scrims, and the lovely backdrop of a Midwestern prairie scene anchors the action with a dreamy sense of place. The soundthanks in part to the upgrades SHN recently made to the Golden Gate Theatreis excellent, and every lyric and line is clear and distinct. The only dialogue you are in danger of missing is what is drowned out by the audience's laughter.
Waitress revels in life's simple pleasureslove, friendship, good foodbut doesn't turn away from its obstaclesforbidden love, cruelty, even the specter of death. Ultimately, though, it celebrates values that truly unite us, something clearly evident by the smiles of the audience leaving the Golden Gate Theatre to head back out into our cold, deeply divided society. I imagine more than a few of us wished we could inhabit the world of Waitress full time. After all, who wouldn't love a place filled with love, friendship, generosityand a pie for every occasion?
Waitress, through November 11, 2018, at SHN's Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $55 to $246, and are available by calling the box office at 888-746-1799 or by visiting SHNSF.com. For more information on the tour, visit waitressthemusical.com/tour.