REVIEW: Sugar, butter and bad ideas in Sara Bareilles’ ‘Waitress’

Minutes into the first act of Sara Bareilles’ “Waitress,” it becomes clear that this musical is about women — about their desires, relationships and mistakes. This female voice incarnates itself in Jenna, portrayed by the mesmerizing Desi Oakley, who discovers she is pregnant while stuck in an abusive marriage. Aside from the support of her two best friends — the quirky, shy Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) and bold, saucy Becky (Charity Angél Dawson) — Jenna finds sole solace in the kitchen of the pie shop where she works, where she alchemizes her dilemmas into delicious pies.

As the story progresses, Jenna unhappily discovers she is pregnant during the hilarious number, “The Negative,” which sees Jenna and her two best friends praying for a single line on the test strip. Her discontent comes mostly from her abusive marriage: her husband Earl’s (Nick Bailey) first instinct at the news is to make her promise that she won’t love the baby more than she loves him. But Jenna chooses to fight; she begins saving shares of her income, hoping to obtain the means to leave Earl and start anew with her child.

And then comes the affair. Comically, “Bad Idea (Reprise)” is the most memorable scene of the show. All three women fornicate with their significant others on stage: Dawn, who meets the hilarious Ogie (Jeremy Morse) through a dating site, reenacts scenes from the American Revolution (at one point, Ogie shouts, “The British are coming!”); Becky predictably begins a steamy affair with Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), the manager of the pie shop; Jenna finds intimacy in the arms of Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart), an awkward, lovable man who gives her the supportive shoulder she had been missing.

Behind the show’s sweet exterior, however, is a drumroll of crescendoing sorrow: Jenna’s violent marriage is akin to that of her late mother, Becky feels stuck caring for her sick, older husband and the affair Jenna eventually begins with her gynecologist is doomed at his early revelation that he has a wife. However, Jessie Nelson’s book, which was based on Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film of the same name often overshadows its characters’ misery through its constant, impeccably-timed gags.

Due to its comedic approach, the cloud of tragedy that looms over the musical is largely dismissed  — much of which stems from the names Jenna assigns her various pies (“Betrayed by my eggs pie”). Often, the awkward interactions that are meant to seem comedic — namely between Jenna and her gynecologist-slash-lover Dr. Pomatter — come across as borderline vaudeville.

Despite the overdose of (often) forced comedy, Oakley shines in her starring role as Jenna. Her voice conveys strength and poignant complexity as opposed to the emotional frailty that Jessie Mueller, who originated the role, had brought. Though Oakley’s vocal performance lacked the sentimental subtext that Mueller delivered in hers, her unwavering belts and youthful delivery allowed the audience to place a little more hope in Jenna’s happy ending. Like Oakley, both Klingaman and Dawson were vivacious in their respective roles as Dawn and Becky.

Lending itself to the show’s essence of sisterhood was Sara Bareilles’ score, which effortlessly fused Broadway pop with the songwriter’s brand of sentimental balladry and subtext-rich lyricism. Bareilles’s signature sound shines through on the show-stopping “She Used to Be Mine” and clever duet “Bad Idea.”

The finale number, “Everything Changes,” appears wildly optimistic at first but this is just the sort of hope “Waitress” begs audiences to employ — a larger hope, not only for Jenna, but also for other women who find themselves stuck in impossible, oppressive situations. Like the number, which crescendos gorgeously as any finale track should, Jenna’s problem soon becomes the solution itself. The baby that she was once afraid of gives her the strength to leave her husband and start anew.