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Review: Sara Bareilles' Waitress

by Vanessa Ullman

Photography courtesy of Waitress the Musical

In August 2015, a brand-new musical premiered at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. Seven months later it made its way to Broadway, and in May 2016 it earned four Tony nominations. And no, this hit musical of 2016 was not the widely acclaimed Hamilton—it’s about a pie-making, capital-W Waitress.

Waitress has been a musical theater phenomenon ever since opening night. The musical not only features original music by Sara Bareilles, but the all-female creative team made history as well. After gaining both Grammy and Tony nominations two years ago, the show continues to run on Broadway in addition to a national tour.

The story centers around Jenna, a waitress working at a small-town pie shop. Her love of creating new flavors of pies parallels her loveless marriage to Carl, her abusive husband. When an unplanned pregnancy is thrown into the mix, she tries to escape her old life with a pie contest that could change not only her future, but her child’s life too. Though the subject matter of the musical is not lighthearted, the music and dialogue is often comedic, as Jenna’s friends, Becky and Dawn, and new doctor, Dr. Pomatter, provide positive distractions.

The musical is based on the hit 2007 indie film of the same name by Adrienne Shelly, and book by Jessie Nelson. Despite predictions, Waitress was not based on Shelly’s own life, according to the show’s website. What did connect Shelly with Jenna was the love she had for her daughter. Like the show’s main character, was concerned about how being a mother would change both her and her career.

Shelly immediately fell in love with her daughter, who became the inspiration for the film. Although Shelly’s life was devastatingly cut short after she was murdered in 2006, her legacy has continued. The Adrienne Shelly Foundation, which is listed in the musical’s program, provides financial support to other passionate female filmmakers. This foundation, much like the musical, is an inspirational message created out of unfortunate events.

Aside from the incredible history behind Waitress, the musical itself proves worthy of national recognition. The original cast featured Tony winner Jessie Mueller as Jenna, Keala Settle of The Greatest Showman as her friend Becky, and a number of other extremely talented performers. The songs convey the characters’ emotions without being too obvious, hitting the right note literally and emotionally. The fine balance between comedic and dramatic elements are key to the show’s success; the funny moments often appear while the main character’s life is falling apart before the audience’s eyes.

Although the original cast is no longer on Broadway, both current Broadway and touring casts still hold up the high bar set by their equally talented peers. The Waitress tour boasts actors whose chemistry with each other is apparent throughout. The musical also takes on a whimsical feel with the actors on stage using real ingredients as some of their props. The smells of fruit and dough are evident even from the balcony.

Some highlights of the musical include the songs that allow Jenna’s passion for making pies to become a metaphor for her own life. “What’s Inside,” “Opening Up” and “It Only Takes a Taste” all express how Jenna’s ability to create her own pies might be the only thing in her life that she not only loves, but that she can control. The beautiful harmonies between her and Dr. Pomatter, the man with whom she finds an unexpected romance, are heard in the upbeat “Bad Idea” and the heartfelt “You Matter to Me.”

Dawn expresses all of her troubles and anxieties of romance in song, while Becky’s “I Didn’t Plan It” evokes a different sentiment about finding love. Even Jenna’s antagonistic husband Carl gets his own song, a rock tune that fits his washed-up band member style. Jenna’s voice still shines through the musical though, with the tear-jerking ballad “She Used to Be Mine.”

The talented touring cast features Desi Oakley as Jenna, Bryan Fenkart as Dr. Pomatter, Charity Angel Dawnson as Becky and Lenne Klingaman as Dawn. The tour is stopping in Boston from February 20 to March 4 for a week-long run at the Boston Opera House. The musical will then continue on to Pittsburgh, PA, as it makes its way across the nation.

If you enjoy musicals that feature diverse storylines, compelling actors, and songs so good that they will get stuck in your head, Waitress might be the dish you have been waiting for.

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