Stage Door Review

Waitress

Friday, July 12, 2019

✭✭

music & lyrics by Sara Bareilles, book by Jessie Nelson, directed by Diane Paulus

David Mirvish, Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto

July 10-August 18, 2019

Jenna and Jim: “It's a bad idea, me and you,

Let's just keep kissing till we come to”

When the musical Waitress premiered on Broadway it was applauded for having the first all-female creative team for a Broadway musical. The composer and lyricist (Sara Bareilles), the book writer (Jessie Nelson), the director (Diane Paulus) and the choreographer (Lorin Latarro) are all women. The 2007 movie of the same name that the musical is based on was also written and directed by a woman (Adrienne Shelly). It is all the more surprising, therefore, that the show could hardly be less feminist. The three main female characters find happiness through men and the story arrives at a happy ending because of a man. Bareilles score brings a new sound to the Broadway musical, but the cast lets her down by not delivering her lyrics clearly.

The musical follows the the movie’s plot closely. Jenna (Christine Dwyer*), famed for her pies, works as a waitress with fellow servers Becky (Melody A. Betts) and Dawn (Ephie Aardema) at Joe’s Pie Diner in a small town somewhere in the American South. Jenna loves her work at Joe’s and is the favourite waitress of Joe the owner (Richard Kline), who gives her advice as if she were his daughter. 

When Jenna goes home, however, she has to face the often drunken abuse of her recently fired husband Earl (Jeremy Woodard), to whom she gives all of her tips every day. Near the very start of the show Jenna, who had been considering how to leave Earl, is shocked to discover she is pregnant. To confirm the matter she sees Dr. Jim Pomatter (Steven Good), the new gynecologist in town, and they are instantly attracted to each other. When Joe tells her about a pie baking contest in a nearly county, Jenna begins saving part of her wages to fund going to the contest. If she wins the first prize of $20,000, she plans to leave Earl and start a new life with the baby. But things do not go as planned.

There are two main problems with the film and the musical adaptation does nothing to fix them. First, the plot depends on a relationship that is not just a “bad idea” as the two characters say but unethical and, possibly, illegal. Nice guy that Dr. Pomatter is meant to be, he lures Jenna to his office when he knows no one else will be there in order to have a liaison with her. Not only is he abusing his position as Jenna’s doctor but this one offence should be enough to cause his medical licence to be revoked. When his Nurse (Rheaume Crenshaw) walks in on a later tryst, this is not just a joke as the musical plays it but an offence that she is duty-bound to report or she too may face disciplinary action. 

Book writer Jessie Nelson is willing to have Jenna harbour amorous feelings for Dr. Pomatter up until she sees his wife during the delivery of her baby. Only then, does she decide to call the affair off. What, did she need to see his wife in person to realize he was married? And did he need her to call it? He’s a doctor – does he know the consequences?

Second, the action is resolved not by Jenna’s own efforts but by a deus ex machina. Such endings are always unsatisfying unless they are used, as did the ancient Greeks, in an ironic manner to indicate that the difficulties faced by the mortals in the play are insoluble unless a god intervenes. In the musical, as in the movie, the solution is not portrayed as ironic. It does mean that the point of all the effort and strife we have been watching is instantly negated because the the characters do not resolve their own problems. 

It’s no use claiming that these points don’t matter because the show is “just a musical”. The creative team hired an expert to teach the actor playing Jenna how to make a pie convincingly. Why didn’t they hire an expert in medical ethics to help them revise the script?

In any case, Bareilles has written a fresh sounding score of varied country-western infused pop songs often with the use of unusual harmonies. She also avoids the Broadway practice of using endless reprises in an effort to make her songs memorable. I would like to comment on her lyrics but I heard only about 50% of them clearly. Partly, this was the fault of the singers who all tended to swallow their consonants. Partly, this is the fault of the sound designer who did not give the amplification enough bass. This meant that the louder the performers sang that less clear their words were without a bass to give the words sufficient fullness.

Director Diane Paulus has the show move along at a swift pace and draws performances as good as one might hope from Jessie Nelson’s sitcom-like dialogue. Paulus tries to give us a glimpse into Jenna’s past with silent scenes depicting her mother (Lulu Lloyd) and father (Adam J. Levy), that suggest that Jenna, in marrying Earl, was repeating the same mistake her mother had made. Where the performers shine is in the the strength of their voices even if we don’t always know what precisely they are singing about.

Christine Dwyer is immediately sympathetic as Jenna even before we know she is in an unhappy relationship. She puts across “She Used to Be Mine” with such emotion that one feels the song is bound to become a classic.

Steven Good is charmingly awkward as Dr. Pomatter although one does have to wonder whether an awkward gynecologist is really desirable. If we forget the ethical concerns, Good does portray Pomatter’s falling in love well, even though we have little evidence of why his marriage should be unsatisfactory.

Melody A. Betts and Ephie Aardema do what they can to make Jenna’s coworkers Becky and Dawn less like stock characters. Becky, White in the movie, is Black in the musical. While this may seem to make the musical more inclusive, Becky is depicted as a clichéd sassy, take no guff Black woman. Dawn, meanwhile, is another clichéd figure, the wallflower who simply needs the right touch to go wild. Bareilles gives each performer a song to shine in and shine they do, more surprisingly Aardema whose mousy speaking voice gives no hint of the power of her singing voice.

Jeremy Woodard plays the rather thankless role of Earl, whom the musical comes close to painting as an outright villain. Woodard makes him seem so unstable, we wonder why Jenna has stayed with him as long as she has, especially when she has a job of her own. Yet, Nelson does give Earl a chance to break down to show how emotionally dependant he is on Jenna, and Woodard does portray this moment convincingly. But Earl’s insecurity in making Jenna pledge not to love the baby more than him should be enough reason for Jenna to escape his influence.

The only purely comic male role is that of Ogie, the man Dawn meets through a newspaper advertisement. Jeremy Morse throws himself fully into an extended scene to show off Ogie’s eccentricity in the acrobatic number “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” even though it comes off less as an expression of Ogie’s character than as a deliberate showstopper. Ryan G. Dunkin has presence as the as the gruff but warm-hearted Cal and Richard Kline is persnickety but warm-hearted Joe. 

If you are able to keep your focus only on the character of Jenna and on Bareilles’ music and overlook the plot’s major flaws and the stock characters that surround Jenna, you may be able to enjoy the show. But at present there are so many other musicals playing in Toronto and at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals that Waitress would never be my top recommendation of what to see this month or next. Waitress simply can’t compete with richer, more emotionally satisfying musicals like Come From Away in Toronto or Billy Elliot at Stratford. 

Christopher Hoile

*Desi Oakley plays the role August 2-12.

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Melody A Betts as Becky, Christine Dwyer as Jenna and Ephie Aardema as Dawn, © 2019 Daniel Lippitt; Rheaume Crenshaw as Nurse Norma, Christine Dwyer Jenna and Steven Good as Dr. Pomatter, © 2019 Philicia Endelman; Jeremy Woodard as Earl and Christine Dwyer as Jenna, © 2019 Jon Gitchoff.

For tickets, visit www.mirvish.com.