‘Waitress’ is a hearty slice of Southern charm, with a big dollop of heart

Though it doesn’t get much attention today, when it was released 2007, the film Waitress was a bit of a revelation, one of the most celebrated romantic comedies of its time, proving Keri Russell had a life beyond Felicity. Though its fame faded in the years that followed, the story gained a new life thanks to the team of award-winning pop princess Sara Bareilles and writer Jesse Nelson, who turned the indie favorite into a Broadway phenomenon.  After winning several Tonys, the Broadway is finally making its way to Austin stages thanks to Broadway Across America, who bring all the frothy joy, toe-tapping tunes, and tear-jerking drama, along with a talented cast of professionals that carry the music, and the emotion, all the way to the rafters.

Waitress takes us to a quiet diner in an unnamed Southern town, and follows the travails of the titular waitress Jenna, whose kindness is matched only by her troubles. Married to an abusive husband, pregnant with a baby she didn’t expect, and barely making ends meet, her only source of solace is also her greatest talent: pie-making. When a handsome doctor and a pie competition enter the picture, a way out begins to take form, but can she shake the responsibilities of her life in order to make a new start? The resulting journey is charming, dramatic, and surprisingly ribald, with an extended cast that adds fascinating and fun texture to the proceedings, and some great tunes that help to put words to the surprisingly complex emotions of the characters. It tackles some serious issues, but always keeps things light, showing that hope and friendship can help you through even the darkest of nights.

Finding the right Jenna is a tricky balance. You need someone who brings not just charm but a certain strength of personality, a stony resolve that endears her to the audience, even as her faults come to the fore, someone with solid comedic chops, but who’s also able to carry the dramatic weight this narrative brings .  Christine Dwyer brings no shortage of adorable quirk to her role, but there’s always something more going on behind her eyes, a strength that keeps her going through all her hardships. She’s the anchor that keeps the goofy cast grounded, while still bringing plenty of humor in her own right. The chemistry with strikes up not just with the hunky, but sensitive doctor (played with a delightful charisma by Steven Good), but also with her two fellow waitresses, creating a living, breathing cast that’s never less than lovable.

It’s always a delight when an actor can build a small role into something show-stopping, and Jeremy Morse is doing just that from the moment he appears as the foppish, but persistent, Ogie. He tackles the role with an ecstatic energy, that radiates out palpably to the entire audience, especially in his opening song, “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me”, one of the show’s best numbers, a spirited, toe-tapping tune, which instantly endears him to viewers. His vigorous spirit plays perfectly with the awkward, quirky energy that Jessie Shelton bring to her role as the shy waitress Dawn, the two of them creating some of the best chemistry in the show. These two play so well together that, when they’re off stage, the audience can’t help but sit in anticipation for their next appearance.

Waitress isn’t as emotionally devastating or socially relevant as many of its contemporaries, but sometimes a charming, fun slice of hilarity and heart makes for a well balanced meal, and there are few musicals that offer this up more heartily. It’s one of most fun evenings you’ll have at the theatre, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, so grab your tickets and make sure not to miss this sweet little piece of romantic comedy gold.

Waitress is playing through Sunday the 27th, so be sure to grab your tickets fast at Austin.broadway.com.

Photo courtesy of Broadway Across America.

Austin Shakespeare serves up some of the biggest laughs of the year with “Much Ado”

There are few artists that get as much space on stages in Austin, and around the world, as William Shakespeare, and as such, it can be difficult to determine which of these productions is worth your time. When it comes to Austin Shakespeare productions, it’s an easy choice, however, as they’re sure to bring an knowledgeable and clever take to any adaptation of the bard, and also fill the cast with the some of the most talented folks in the city. They’ve pulled out all the stops with their production of Much Ado About Nothing bringing in recent Austin Chronicle award-winner Marc Pouhe, and the ever-impressive Gwendolyn Kelso, as well as a talented supporting cast, to this Bossa Nova-soaked interpretation of Shakespeare’s greatest comedy.

Due warning must be given here, Much Ado About Nothing can be a deceptively complex play. Despite all the lightness and humor that permeates the work, the plot is a tangle of hidden identities, double crosses, and harmful secrets, and if you miss the wrong line of dialog, the entire play could become a confusing mess. As with most Shakespeare, it’s a good idea to come with some idea of the basic plot outline, which will then let you enjoy the performances and the interpretation all the more, however,  between the brisk direction and fine acting on display in this production, you should have very few issues keeping up with the action.

With every performance he gives, Marc Pouhe shows off another dimension to his talent. Building upon the leading man charisma that has made him such a popular figure in the Austin theatre scene, he proves he’s not afraid to make a fool of himself here, as he takes on the sharp, and sharp-tongue Benedick. Whether he’s trading barbs with Gwendolyn Kelso’s Beatrice, or showing off his skills at slapstick, he’s sure to have the audience in the aisles. Throughout the play, he shows that keeping the audience entertained is paramount, and the play is better for it. This is never more evident than in one scene, near the middle of the play, when he pulls off a physical comedy sequence that spans nearly the entirety of the theatre, from the back of the audience to behind the scenery, interacting with audience members along the way, leaving them all crying with laughter by scene’s end. It’s obvious we have somehow still not seen the limits of Pouhe’s talent, and I’m doubtful we ever will.

Pouhe is met in nearly equal measure by the effortlessly charming Gwendolyn Kelso, who spits out biting wit with the best of them as Beatrice, one of Shakespeare’s most delightful characters. Much like Benedick, Beatrice is a character who is more than she seems at first blush, using her sarcasm and cynicism as a guard of her inner pain, and the way Kelso is able to communicate this with just a gesture or expression is really quite remarkable. Her affect is so delightful, that during certain sequences I would find myself paying more attention to her facial expressions and reactions than major pieces of action or dialogue going on elsewhere on stage. In other hands it could fall to mugging, but Kelso knows the exact line to ride when it comes to keeping the audience entertained while never feeling disconnected from the action of the play.

Two more kudos must go out to Toby Minor and Susan Myburgh, who play the two bumbling officers who bring the play to its climax. One part Keystone Cops and one part Laurel and Hardy, the two bring some of the biggest laughs in the piece, selling even the corniest of Shakespeare’s jokes. Myburgh is quite a find, showing a real talent for clowning, her bright eyes and a huge smile creating an upbeat atmosphere that’s infectious. One can only hope that she graces more Austin stages in the near future, as even with her small role here, she’s shown a rare talent.  As Dogberry, Minor has weaponized his excellent stage present, grabbing the audience’s attention and holding it fast, as he creates moments of pure pleasure that leave the audience in stitches.

Research from over the last several years has recently shown that Much Ado About Nothing is one of the most performed plays in Austin, so one can be forgiven for being hesitant to pick up a ticket to such a well-worn play, but by bringing in an ace cast, and underscoring the whole thing with the ambiance of the Grand Epoch and the energy of the Bossa Nova, Austin Shakespeare has proven that there’s still a lot of life left in this classic. Director Ann Ciccolella and her crew keep the action light and brisk, helping the audience to navigate through some of the more convoluted, confusing portions of the text, serving up an enticing slice of comedy goodness.

Photos Courtesy of Errich Petersen Photography