The Decadent Musical With a Serious Bite
At first taste, Waitress may seem like nothing more than your standard, American-theatrical diner fare: a menu of cutesy-titled numbers, an opening with a side of just a little too much cheer, and an atmosphere so laden in technicolor it begins to taste just a tad too saccharine. Sink your fork in a little further, however, and you might just be surprised: this musical serves up a serious helping of emotional depth, with generous sides each of wit and quirk to earn it its place on the list of customer hits.
Based on Adrienne Shelly’s award-winning film, Waitress takes place in a small, southern town, following expert pie baker and diner waitress, Jenna (Jessie Mueller), who is stuck in a controlling, emotionally abusive marriage with husband, Earl (Nick Cordero). As she attempts to run away from an unplanned pregnancy, and is forced to face the reality of her relationship, she embarks on a passionate affair with gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling). Aided by this newfound love, and the help of fellow waitresses, Dawn (Kimiko Glenn) and Becky (Keala Settle), she begins to come to terms with her impending motherhood, slowly reimagining her life and self-worth in the process.
Despite its award-winning cast, one of Waitress’ biggest names is, in fact, its music producer, six time Grammy-nominated, self-claimed “pop soul” artist, Sara Bareilles. It is a name the show’s marketing department has been eager to capitalize on — Bareilles’ edition of the soundtrack was released nearly six months before the cast recording, and the artist was brought on stage to sing alongside Mueller at this year’s Tony awards — and for good reason. Bareilles’ original score is sweeping, an array of confections ranging from her characteristic ballads to more understated, bubbly rhythms. Energy-gathering favorite, “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” an over-the-top, two minute, twenty-six second pickup line attempt, reveals a welcome, lesser-seen look at Bareilles’ comedic timing, while “Soft Place to Land,” the mellow, whimsical daydream of the three waitresses, showcases the strength of her orchestrational abilities, as shorter guitar chords lace with longer piano melodies for a lullaby-like quality. The sugar dusting that seems to overlay many of Bareilles’ own recordings, however, her signature dreamy, subdued sound, is lifted in the cast’s thrilling rendition. Mueller’s raspier, deep-throated vocals bring new maturity, depth and life to the score, and will earn profound respect and recognition from fans initially drawn to the show for Bareilles alone.
Director Diane Paulus’ staging also deserves a note of recognition, namely for her admirable ability to follow such a cohesive, flowing score with equally skillful visual changes. Waitress’ transitions are buttery smooth, engaging the audience nearly as much as the actors themselves. Act one’s transition from diner to doctor’s office keeps eyes pinned on a chocolate pie, carried a mere three feet before the entire scene has changed, and it is set down on an exam table where a countertop existed just moments before. Such flowing transitions suspend the belief of the audience, taking viewers out of a succession of events and into the consciousness of Jenna herself, as her mind jumps from scene to scene. Several other visually inventive instances — flour being blown into dark lighting to glitter like pixie dust, and straps on the bottoms of pie tins to allow them to be twirled without falling, most memorably — add to the playful, dream-like aura, creating a production as visually stunning and engaging for audience members as its soundtrack.
Waitress’ truest depth of flavor, however, lies in the compelling characterizations of its protagonists, and the uncensored truth of its relevant thematic commentary. In an artistic genre full of larger than life personalities, the personas of Waitress are refreshing, welcome tastes of reality. Dawn and Dr. Pomatter represent the anxiety-ridden introverts of the world, while Becky embodies the experienced, older, level-headed woman. At the same time, however, each of these characters subverts their own identity. Dawn falls madly in love with few hesitations, Dr. Pomatter becomes the “nice guy” to lead himself into an affair without a second thought, never really regretting it, and Becky goes against her own judgment when cheating on her husband with the diner’s owner. Jenna, as the main character, too, subverts her own identity, being incapable, for the majority of the story, of embracing the headstrong quality so often seen in the personalities many leading roles. For many characters, these actions are left without closure at the end of the performance. In this way, Waitress acknowledges that what is messy, contradictory and out-of-character is most “real” of all, and, most certainly, will never be resolved and rationally-reflected upon in a neat, tied-up ending with song and dance.
It is Mueller, unsurprisingly, however, who brings the serious emotional kick. Having received the 2014 Tony Award for best actress for her role of Carole King in Beautiful, the star is under watchful eyes to bring a compelling voice to a character still trying to find her own. Her portrayal of Jenna is brilliantly bittersweet: naive and hopeful in the face of abuse, yet angered and regretful in the face of motherhood. The two themes reach their boiling points in the emotional climax of the production, the trademark ballad, “She Used to Be Mine.” Teary-eyed and staggering burdensomely from pregnancy, Mueller is far from the saccharine impression of the show’s opening: she is magnificently vulnerable, grotesque and defenseless. She is raw.
Sweet and tart, immaculate and crumbled, confectionery and commentary, Waitress is “all of this, mixed up, and baked in a beautiful pie.” Order up.