What are little girls made of? Sugar, butter and flour, according to the opening words of the stage musical “Waitress” – sugar for sweetness, butter (perhaps) because they make the elements of life blend together smoothly, flour for the salt-of-the-earth quality that lets them adapt to any situation.
Those ingredients (and memories of mother’s love and recipes) combine in the emotional core of the title character. If you have seen the 2007 movie of the same name, you know Jenna’s story. She’s coping with an unwanted pregnancy, a no-longer-wanted husband who controls her, a too-much-wanted gynecologist with whom she’s having an affair, and the dream of opening a long-wanted pie shop.
“Waitress,” now at Belk Theater for a week on its Broadway Lights tour, has been billed as a feminist show. Never before had a group of women occupied the four key roles in creating a Broadway musical: composer (Sara Bareilles), director (Diane Paulus), choreographer (Lorin Latarro) and librettist (Jessie Nelson, adhering closely to the story Adrienne Shelly wrote for the film). The three main characters – Jenna and her waitress pals, shy Dawn and ribald Becky – take the last bows and get the only character development.
Yet the men aren’t quite stereotyped as villains: Pie shop manager Cal has a beneficent side beneath his boorishness, mean-spirited husband Earl clings to Jenna partly from desperation, and gawky Dr. Pomatter seems as foolishly overwhelmed by passion as Jenna when they meet during an examination.
The story’s about finding your place in the world, more than finding it in a relationship: As faux-curmudgeon Joe reminds Jenna, your dream need not be focused on another person. The pie shop owner’s even cuddlier here than in the movie version, which says something about the softening of the material; Spartanburg native Larry Marshall, an indelible Sportin’ Life in “Porgy and Bess” 40 years ago, sings Joe’s “Take it From an Old Man” in a resonant tenor.
That number’s a memorable exception in a score where almost half the important songs are “This is who I am” proclamations. Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) has a moment of glory revealing her unseen sexual side in “I Didn’t Plan It.” OCD oddball Ogie (Jeremy Morse) steals the first act – as he’s meant to do – with madcap dancing in “Never Getting Rid of Me.” Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) expresses her lonely dreaminess in “When He Sees Me,” never imagining she and Ogie will be soulmates.
Jenna has many such numbers, from her longing for past independence in “She Used to Be Mine” to her philosophy about piemaking in “What Baking Can Do.” Desi Oakley, sometimes plaintive and sometimes powerfully heartbroken, sings these ballads beautifully. (If anything does make this a feminist musical, it’s that none of the men has a “This is who I am” song except Ogie, the least masculine character.)
Director Paulus last came here with a spectacular if shallow “Pippin.” She has taken her main strength in that show – an ability to keep a three-ring circus moving at all times – and, with contributions from choreographer Latarro, made it work here. The action flows around the stage, almost as if characters were on unseen roller skates, while members of the chorus whirl among the principals to hand over props or snatch them away.
Paulus and the ensemble make sure these unnamed characters have lives, too: Look anywhere, and you’ll see every person fully invested in what’s going on. Even the musicians in the onstage six-piece band, conducted from the piano by Jenny Cartney, become silent participants in the narrative. That’s why the two-hour-and-45-minute show feels long only when Bareilles stops to repeat a musical point she’s already made, never when the characters swing into action again.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
Running time: 165 minutes.
Details: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.