Waitress, the touring Broadway musical currently onstage at the Aronoff Center, combines music, talent, stagecraft and heartfelt storytelling. Based on Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 movie about a young woman, in a loveless marriage who escapes her painful existence by pouring herself into the pies she creates for a local diner, this adaptation staged by Diane Paulus uses tunes by Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles that range from witty to heartfelt to soulful.
Waitress continues to run on Broadway (in fact, Bareilles is currently playing the woman in that production), but for this touring incarnation the character is brought to life by Desi Oakley. Her beleaguered, yearning Jenna makes fanciful pies that grow out of her emotional states: “Berry the Bullshit Pie,” “White Knuckle Cream Pie,” “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness Pie.”
Early on Jenna is trapped by an unwanted pregnancy, leading to numerous complications. She is supported by her fellow waitresses at Joe’s Diner, sassy Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) and anxious Dawn (Lenne Klingaman). Their songs together, from “The Negative” (nervously waiting on the results of Jenna’s pregnancy test) to “A Soft Place to Land” (with lovely synchronized movement as they work with Jenna at her baking counter), define their friendship.
Oakley’s powerhouse voice shines, especially singing the freshly self-aware “She Used to Be Mine.” Her engaging stage presence keeps scenes believable that could become melodramatic, and her hesitant romantic banter with Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart), her lonely, awkward gynecologist — while on thin moral ice, since they’re both married to other people — is both amusing and a much-needed solace in Jenna’s less-than-happy life. Her sweet chatter with Joe (Larry Marshall), the diner’s salty, elderly owner, also has surprising results.
Waitress gets a big jolt of batty energy from a pair of scenes featuring Jeremy Morse as Ogie, Dawn’s persistent respondent to an online dating service. His featured song, “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” full of manic physical animation and spontaneous outbursts of poetry, is hilarious.
This touring production benefits from Scott Pask’s imaginative design: The stage curtain image is an enlarged lattice-top crust from a cherry pie. The two sides of the proscenium are panels of quilted stainless steel, reminiscent of a diner. (Two open to reveal glass-fronted cases with rotating pies.)
The stage is backed by a glowing image of a rural Southern highway with telephone poles and wires. Jenna’s barebones home, shared with her selfish, minimally employed, lowlife husband Earl (Nick Bailey), underscores her suffocating existence.
Elements of Joe’s Diner — a grill, counter and tables — slide in and out as needed, with customers played by ensemble members and a half-dozen musicians who perform in plain site. Lorin Latarro’s beautifully integrated choreography supports Jenna’s work on her imaginative pies with ensemble performers who move behind her and pirouette around her, seamlessly providing ingredients and baking implements as she sings “What Baking Can Do.”
Waitress is populated by imperfect people. Jenna yearns to escape a bad marriage, but gets ahead of herself. Her fellow waitress, Becky, lovingly cares for a disabled husband while seeking satisfaction elsewhere. Though their circumstances are awkwardly humorous and morally questionable, they humanize these women. Becky and Jenna know their paths are not admirable: Dawson’s Becky sings the powerfully unapologetic “I Didn’t Plan It” and Oakley’s Jenna and Fenkart’s Dr. Pomatter wrestle with their attraction in “Bad Idea.”
Such frank attitudes put Waitress in the company of contemporary musicals from next to normal to If/Then that feature characters with flaws who don’t always make the right decisions. Some in the audience might question Jenna’s decisions to sustain her pregnancy or to have an affair, but her conflicted actions and Oakley’s fine performance make Jenna supremely appealing. Things eventually work out for her — perhaps a tad too neatly and joyously — but her story about becoming self-reliant is a meaningful, believable message.
Waitress, presented by Broadway in Cincinnati at the Aronoff Center, continues through Jan. 21. Tickets and more info: cincinnatiarts.org.