By Tulis McCall
Waitress is a musical that will leave you fahklempt, because of Sarah Bareilles’ sublime music, but seriously unsatisfied with the decision to overstuff this story.
There are a few basic and necessary ingredients in writing a story. One the one hand there is the three character rule. Two main characters, one of whom – the primary – is driving the piece (Romeo tumbles for Juliet), and a third character whose presence affects the plot. Romeo kills Mercutio and things go south. We see this all the time in every single show on TV. Every. Single. One.
Then you have your actions: discover, deliberate and determine. Also in every TV script. These are basics that date back to a seriously long time ago. Way long. And they are basic because they work. They work so well that when you see a show that feels off you can go directly to these rules and see where the applecart tipped over.
In this case I picture this esteemed tribe of artists sitting around the worktable and considering what to cut. I saw this show in Boston and it was ripe for scissoring back then. I picture the conversation went something like, “Well, we could cut the song about dating.” And the reply, “Oh but I love that song. And she nails it.” “OK. How about the one where she defends her love life.” “Nope. WE need that one because she’s been silent up till then.” And on and on and on. In the end everything stayed because all the elements were too dear. No one had the laser vision to make the cuts. Even the song “I Love You Like A Table” – the titles speaks for itself….
To use the pie analogy that begins the show, this team took sugar, butter, flour and added chocolate, cinnamon, lemons, ginger, molasses, minced meat and….. you get the idea.
On the plus side of everything is Jesse Mueller whose skill at delivering a whole universe in a song is astonishing. Her range is stratospheric and her heart is in every note. As Jenna, she is the waitress who supplies Joe’s Diner with pies that are not just pies. Each one is life. “Deep Dish Blueberry Bacon” “Betrayed by My Eggs Pie”. Some are real, others are fantasy, like “My Husband’s A Jerk Chicken Pot Pie”.
Jenna is one of those women who never gets a leg up. The kind of woman who will not be able to afford a ticket to this show. She married because there was not much else to do. And now her husband has devolved into a self-pitying Neanderthal names Earl (Nick Cordero). At work Jenna is buoyed up by the other waitresses. Dawn (Kimiko Glenn) is a perky waif who would like to be in love but has no idea how to do it. Becky (Keala Settle) is a woman with a lot of mileage who still has plenty of tread on her tires. The cook Cal (Eric Anderson) is a monosyllabic soul of hidden substance. The owner Joe (A delightful as always Daikin Matthews) wears gruff like an impenetrable suit and misses nothing. His solo Take It From An Old Man left the audience moved so much we almost forgot to clap. Then there are the customers who dance and sing through life.
In other words there is nothing new here. Except for the arrival of the local gynecologist Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling)to whose office Jenna bolts when she learns she is pregnant with a child she does not want because a) it is Earl’s and b) she is pretty certain she will mess up being a mother. The highly improbably relationship that develops between doctor and patient is made plausible, once again, because of the music. Their several duets are exquisite, and when it comes to being funny Gehling walks away with the trophy.
Eventually Jenna gets her courage back, and the balcony erupts with applause. Not so much in the orchestra where I imagine there were a lot of women seeing themselves on that stage: in an unhappy relationship with future prospects looking dim. The walking wounded.
And that is where the bravery of this show lies: in the tale of a woman who is living her life by putting one foot in front of the other every day. She has dreams. In this show a dream is not make you delusional. A dream is a soft place to land.
And in the end that is why we cry and that is why we cheer. And that is why I will go to Tower Records (gotcha) and get the cast recording. I cannot wait to hear these songs again.
Runtime 2 hrs. and 30 min.
WAITRESS – Based on the film written by Adrienne Shelly; Book by Jessie Nelson; Music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles; Directed by Diane Paulus
Cast Jessie Mueller as Jenna, Eric Anderson as Cal, Nick Cordero as Earl, Christopher Fitzgerald as Ogie, Drew Gehling as Dr. Pomatter, Kimiko Glenn as Dawn, Dakin Matthews as Joe and Keala Settle as Becky; Also Charity Angél Dawson, Thay Floyd, Molly Hager, Aisha Jackson, Jeremy Morse, Ragan Pharris, Stephanie Torns and Ryan Vasquez