“Waitress” follows a woman who spends her days baking and serving pies at a diner, and the musical inspires feelings similar to those one might experience while eating a warm slice of pie.
The main narrative — the flavor people pay for — satisfies. The lead actress, Christine Dwyer, impresses with her smooth-as-butter voice and the way she embodies her character’s strength. But it’s the supporting actresses and actors whose performances leave people hungry for more.
The story takes place in a small southern town where Jenna (Dwyer) goes to work at Joe’s Pie Diner. She feels unhappy with her unhealthy marriage and mundane life, and the news of her unplanned pregnancy makes her feel trapped. Conveniently, a new man enters the lull, and it becomes a boy-meets-girl story — or a handsome-gynecologist-meets-lonely-pregnant-woman story.
At home, Jenna faces her abusive husband Earl (Jeremy Woodard) who demands she hand over her tip money as he sits on their couch, holding a beer and still wearing his work boots. As Jenna struggles with her homelife and feelings for Dr. Jim Pomatter (Steven Good), she leans on her witty waitress friends to bring a smile to her face.
“Waitress” originated as a movie in 2007 written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, and an all-female creative team created the musical, which debuted on Broadway in 2016. The musical, based on Jessie Nelson’s book with direction from Diane Paulus, features pop singer Sara Bareilles’ original catchy songs and comical lyrics.
Bareilles’ lyrics allow each actor and actress to draw a laugh from the audience. The upbeat music keeps audience members happy and hopeful, particularly with how the songs tell the supporting characters’ love stories.
Dawn (Ephie Aardema), a dorky young waitress nervous to go on a date, sings about her fears as she dances through the diner, executing the choreography seamlessly. She grabs a knife from one table and swings it like a sword, then later gestures to a patron’s mismatched socks as she sings about her mystery man, “He could be colorblind. How untrustworthy is that!”
As the story progresses through Jenna and her doctor’s affair, we occasionally return to Dawn and her suitor, an equally dorky man played by Jeremy Morse. The two bring naivety and joy into the narrative, and rooting for their romance comes naturally.
The story proves more relatable than most Broadway stories. Engaging in a love affair with one’s own gynecologist might seem cringy and unlikely, but it’s not uncommon for someone to fall in love out of convenience. The characters seek excitement and embrace a change of pace.
Dr. Pomatter challenges Jenna’s routine and cares for her in ways her husband does not. The audience can sympathize with Jenna feeling trapped and might even support her desperate infidelity, but Dr. Pomatter’s reason for cheating is less evident and more difficult to excuse.
The audience knows little about Dr. Pomatter other than his profession, his boyish charm and that he “isn’t used to happy” in his own marriage. His character is underdeveloped, making it difficult to connect with him in a positive way. The writer should take blame here, not the actor.
Nelson’s writing frames Dr. Pomatter as Jenna’s Prince Charming, a man who recognizes her worth and saves her from unhappiness. However, being a nice guy doesn’t justify cheating on his wife.
Amid the jokes and music breaks, Lighting Designer Ken Billington reminds the audience that this story reflects everyday life and a desire to escape routine.
When Jenna arrives at the diner, Billington uses soft light and pastel colors as the sun rises on a new day. Later, the lighting intensifies, until the sun sets on her and her husband at home. The next day, the cycle repeats with another sunrise and sunset.
The majority of scenes take place inside the diner, which is bright, simple and homey. None of the set pieces stand out, and Scott Pask’s simple set design further emphasizes this theme.
Pie references remain consistent throughout the musical, drawing out the central theme. Jenna talks about “baking a better life” and declares, “Where there’s a whisk, there’s a way.” She even invents a pie she calls the Pursuit Of Happiness Pie.
In the end, “Waitress” leaves the audience with a sense of empowerment and a reminder that change can come from within, and perhaps it’s more powerful that way.
“Waitress” is showing Thursday through Sunday at the Walton Arts Center. Tickets start at $38.