‘Waitress’ at SHN Golden Gate Theatre satisfies sweet tooth

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The act of baking a pie lends itself to pitfalls. The filling can’t be too watery; the crust can’t be overbaked; the result can’t be too sweet or too bitter. But in “Waitress,” now playing at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco, the recipe is simple: sugar, butter, flour.

The sugar: “Waitress” is the first Broadway musical with an all-women creative team of songwriter, book writer, director and choreographer. The musical’s story is by and about women at its crust, and in its filling, it reveals itself to be a show more broadly about humanity — one told through Jenna, a waitress with a talent for pie-baking who finds herself pregnant after a drunken night with her abusive, deadbeat husband.

Some of the rougher edges are trimmed off of the eponymous 2007 film’s Jenna, as played by Keri Russell — the musical’s Jenna is written to be more saccharine, her mezzo-soprano range charming in Christine Dwyer’s delivery. But even though the music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles reveal Jenna’s sweet side, Dwyer deliberately keeps Jenna from being the perfect Southern belle. Her emotive performance translates Jenna’s rough edges, frustrations and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor into her most endearing attributes.

The musical is populated by both sex montages and tear-jerking scenes, and through the scenes of despair and levity alike, Dwyer shines. When she finally sings the showstopping “She Used to Be Mine” at the musical’s most vulnerable point, her performance is a perfectly baked pie, one with lightly golden edges and a deep-dish center.

Even beyond its leading lady, “Waitress” is an awe-inspiring collection of moving parts, and the butter that greases the machine is the ingenious staging and set design. Awash in neon lights, the details of the diner set mesmerize, as do the onstage band members, who fill the roles of diner patrons when off-duty from their instruments. Rotating pie stands bookmark the stage ends and perfectly timed movements of the ensemble allow for objects to travel across the stage by magic.

This magic also permeates the casting. Becky (Anastacia McCleskey) finally receives her moment in the spotlight with her jaw-dropping range in the act two opener “I Didn’t Plan It.” McCleskey’s comedic timing acts as a complement to that of Jeremy Morse, allowing for the musical to accomplish a wide range of humor. Morse’s physicality as Ogie received applause and cheers as he Irish jigged to begin the earworm “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” and cartwheeled off the stage to exit.

Finally, there’s the flour — what provides the show’s structure. The musical is about women who are low-wage workers in various states of romantic entanglements. It’s also soft and gentle, and it’s punctuated by consistently well-executed moments of humor. It doesn’t attempt to provide a singular, blanket narrative about “women’s empowerment;” it’s a beautifully subtle story about resilience and choice, about motherhood and daughterhood, and about finding oneself through one’s chosen family.

“Waitress” is a show about balance, and it even tempers its sweetest moment: When the three waitresses sing “A Soft Place to Land” over gentle guitar plucks, awash in purple lights and affectionately resting their heads on each other’s shoulders, the song’s ending is an abrupt pull back to reality, with their boss complaining of “estrogen asphyxiation” while they exit Joe’s Pie Diner.

While at that point the audience members don’t know whether Jenna’s pie will win best in show, “Waitress” has baked itselves into their hearts, in all of its messy glory. “Waitress” is imperfect, but it tries — and the blood and sweat of its creative team shines.

“Waitress” runs through Nov. 11 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre.

Contact Caroline Smith at [email protected].