Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
When: through July 22
By ANNE SPISELMAN
“Waitress” could be an enjoyable musical.
Based on Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film about a talented pie maker who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy and longs to escape an abusive marriage, its formulaic story of female empowerment has a lot of appeal nowadays. Sara Bareilles’ country-inflected pop music and lyrics range from the funny “Never Getting Rid of Me” to the heart-rending “She Used to Be Mine” with varied songs such as “What Baking Can Do,” “It Only Takes a Taste,” “Bad Idea,” and “Take It From an Old Man” in between. And the main character, Jenna Hunterson, is a complicated young woman with real-world conflicts who wins our sympathy from the start.
Unfortunately, almost everything about the production that bowed in at the Cadillac Palace Theatre for a short run is so pumped up that I found myself wanting to get out of the theater as soon as possible. Only Desi Oakley’s performance as Jenna made staying worth while. She has a beautiful singing voice and beguiling speaking voice and manages to create a believable character in a cartoon world despite unbelievable plot points like her instantaneous conversion to fiercely devoted mother the moment the baby is placed in her arms. .
On opening night, the problems started with the sound, which was especially bad in the first act. The music was so loud and out of balance that the bass drowned out a lot of the lyrics. I’m not sure whether to blame sound designer Jonathan Deans or music coordinator John Miller, but the six-piece onstage band led by conductor/pianist Nadia DiGiallonardo often seemed to be out of sync with the singers, too.
The actors sang their hearts out—and not in a good way. Almost every song was belted at full volume—or crescendo-ed to that—destroying any subtlety. The worst offender was Charity Angel Dawson as Jenna’s buxom coworker Becky, who was so screechy that her lyrics were unintelligible.
Jesse Nelson’s book turns the characters into caricatures and focuses almost exclusively on their sex lives. Becky, who has an ill husband at home, surreptitiously takes up with Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), the cook at Joe’s Pie Diner, where she and Jenna work. Their third cohort, dorky Dawn (Lenne Klingman), is encouraged to meet Ogie (Jeremy Morse) for a five-minute date, and the next day, this goofy accountant/impromptu poet shows up at the diner intent on winning her (in a way we might regard as stalking).
As for Jenna, her husband Earl (Nick Bailey) is a verbally abusive jerk who grabs her tips whenever he sees her, demands that she love him more than the baby, and threatens physical violence even though he claims he loves her. He even ruins her plan to save money to enter a pie contest in a nearby town and hopefully win the $20,000 prize that will enable her to leave him and set up her own pie shop.
Unbeknownst to Earl, fortunately, Jenna initiates an affair with her new gynecologist Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart), who has moved from Connecticut to replace her life-long female doctor. What she doesn’t know, and he doesn’t tell her, is that the reason for his move is his wife’s residency at the same hospital where Jenna ultimately has her baby. In the light of the recent onslaught of doctors’ sexual misconduct with patients, this scenario is squirm-inducing, even if Jenna is the one who makes the first move and the doctor is charmingly awkward.
The other important character is Joe (Larry Marshall), the crotchety old diner regular—and owner of it and other businesses in town—who always sits in Jenna’s section, seems to know exactly what’s going on with her, and urges her to start a new life. He brings about the happy ending, and the much-talked-about pie contest kind of falls by the wayside, so we never find out which of her many fancifully named pies Jenna would have entered.
Director Diane Paulus, responsible for terrific work at Chicago Opera Theater in the past, here takes an extremely broad approach to the detriment of everyone involved. Lorin Latarro’s choreography is mostly forgettable, though Morse’s antics as Ogie liven it up in his big numbers.
If the sound issues are straightened out, “Waitress” may be worth seeing, but overall I was disappointed.