BWW Review: WAITRESS Is One Fresh, Delightful Pie Fest
Manila, Philippines--In the play "Boston Marriage," dramatist David Mamet famously quotes, "We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie." Indeed, as life in the present has become ever more stressful, one can always choose to find comfort in the gustatory wonders of a perfect pie.
As if taking cue from Mamet, Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group has opened up the diner for the international premiere of the Jessie Nelson-Sara Bareilles' Broadway hit "Waitress," a musical with delicious pies at the heart of its narrative. For weary Manila audiences who are looking for a perfect escape from the daily grind, a delicious musical offering could just be it.
With theater stalwarts Joanna Ampil and Bituin Escalante as headliners, Atlantis Theatrical's latest musical dish has successfully attracted a steady swarm of curious and eager audiences, all yearning to get a bite of this freshly baked Bobby Garcia masterpiece.
On the crust, "Waitress" is a fanfare of stockish, bigger-than-life characters with the sincere intention of making up for the hyperbolic through some heartfelt moments. On top of it all, the standing ovation that capped off the November 11 matinee could be one proof that this first international staging has more substance than what it advertises--sugar, butter, and flour.
What's Inside the Diner
Seeing the perfect opportunity to escape her small town and woeful marriage, Jenna Hunterson, a gifted pie baker, sets her heart on a high-prize pie-baking contest as the penultimate chapter to her humdrum southern America life. Her hope, however, is clouded by an untimely pregnancy, and to make things worse, a growing indiscreet relationship with her gynecologist. A woman's predicament could never be more insuperable.
The soul of the musical, as the production would have us believe, is not in the coveted pies but in the mess and brokenness of its central character. Jenna's story is one that may easily resonate with those who struggle in life, one way or another. The plot loudly preaches that whether you are stuck in the rut of a boring job or struggling to break free of an oppressive relationship, finding your real worth and pursuing your dream, a great theme of several other musicals these days, are an impetus strong enough to make that major life-changing decision regardless of what past mistakes hound you.
It's in the Crust and Filling
One of the strong foundations of the musical is Nelson's book, based on Adrienne Shelly's 2007 indie film of the same title. Nelson's narrative outlines are easily traceable, but her agenda of weaponizing the pie--a universal euphemism for a woman's you-know-what--to lecture and educate the most stoic of men about a woman's inner yearnings somehow lands loftily in the hard lap of its intended recipient. The story, which highlights the mess that prefaces the making of a great pie, successfully melds common workplace issues into a story that's digestible and tasty. The overhyped sexual aspect of the musical may be all over the place, but who are we to disagree with an audience who lap it up with gusto?
Undoubtedly, Bareilles' score is the strongest element of the musical. Six-time Grammy nominee and author of major pop hits (Love Song, Brave, King of Anything), Bareilles' musical gifts are on full display here. She parlays her lyrical and melodic sensibilities into one irresistible, finger-smacking score that compels one to intently listen, strengthening more the musical's narrative clarity and focus. The musical numbers I Didn't Plan It and She Used to Be Mine are sure show-stoppers that will leave you breathless and roaring in approval.
Director Garcia knows how to combine the right ingredients in right amounts. Post-show, one comes out of the theatre with that full feeling of satisfaction sans any hint of queasiness. Steered by the clear vision of Nelson's book and Bareilles' infectious score, Garcia accentuates the material's humor and drama with a heavy sprinkling of sex, which in turn has made the musical a riotous rom-com rather than a heavy, wearisome drama. In Garcia's hands, the characters are individually outstanding, musical numbers memorable. The result is one pie that is simply hard to resist. "Waitress" could easily be Atlantis Theatrical's slickest and most entertaining production of the year.
Cecile Martinez's choreography is to be patiently discovered, layer by layer. Hers allows actors to break into a dance without actually losing their individual characters, and in doing so, Martinez has crafted a choreography that permits actors to return to their non-dancing stage business almost seamlessly.
Critical to the overall success of the show is scenic designer David Gallo's diner-a bright candy-colored contraption that is both functional and a sight to behold. Gallo's scenic design does not require complicated set changes, but its effects are nevertheless breath-taking. Aaron Porter's lighting design, on the other hand, helps Gallo's diner come alive, and provides the much-needed depth and drama in somber scenes.
The Men and Women of the Diner
West End "Miss Saigon" and "Les Miserables" alum Ampil lends her dramatic and melodious voice to Jenna, a role as meaty as those she had successfully portrayed in the UK (Kim, Fantine, Eponine). Her vast experience obviously gives her the edge, showcasing her versatility in numbers that are both vocally and emotionally demanding. Ampil has complete control of her voice--she whispers and yells in enviable fashion, cracking it at will, making for a holistic performance that is both compelling and memorable. She shines brightest in Dear Baby and She Used To Be Mine-the former, a tender moment of motherhood musings; the latter, an explosive painful reflection of a woman's self-worth masterfully crafted in palpable contradictions and ironies.
If there's one actor that automatically earns the approval of the audience the very first moment she opens her mouth to sing, it's got to be dynamo performer Escalante. As Jenna's friend Becky, Escalante electrifies the stage with her powerful voice. She essays the part quite convincingly, and her southern accent almost sounds genuine. Her confrontational solo I Didn't Plan It is delivered with such perfection one can actually smell her frustration and anguish in those perfectly minted notes. Escalante, hands-down, is a force of nature.
Bibo Reyes' portrayal of Dr. Jim Pomatter, Jenna's doctor and lover, is a showcase of his versatility, making him one of the most eligible leading men in local theater. Armed with good looks and charm, he concocts great chemistry with equally gorgeous Ampil. On his own, he three-dimensionalizes a rather flat role and comes full circle with his Dr. Pomatter in Act 2. His eventual transformation from a delightful neurotic gynecologist (It Only Takes a Taste) to a sensitive lover (You Matter to Me) provides one of the dramatic highlights to Jenna's denouement and the show in general.
Maronne Cruz 's Dawn is a hit with the audience. As the third in a trio of close friends, Cruz holds her own against veterans Ampil and Escalante. What she may lack in vocal power, she makes up for with hilarity and guffaw-inducing antics. Her scenes with Nino Alejandro are sure to floor you, no doubt.
Nino Alejandro is having a ball with arguably one of his most challenging roles to date. As Dawn's ardent suitor Ogie, Alejandro delights audiences the moment he steps on stage. He performs his two major numbers with Cruz (Never Ever Getting Rid of Me, I Love You Like a Table) to the max, and the audience's applause of approval even extends to his exits. He drops comedic lines as if he were an established comedic star, and the audience is most boisterous whenever he does so.
Steven Conde, as diner owner Joe, provides one of the more poignant portrayals that strengthens the musical's serious dramatic leanings. Conde has played many character roles for Atlantis Theatrical besides his stints as its resident director, and one can only be assured of his forthcoming maturity as an actor with the depth and versatility he shows every time.
Other noteworthy performances are courtesy of George Schulze as Earl, Dean Rosen as Cal, Bruna Berenguer-Testa as Lulu, and the rest of the young but able ensemble.
Resist if you must, but "Waitress" is one fresh, delightful pie fest.
"Waitress" plays now through December 2, 2018, at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium (4F RCBC Plaza, Ayala Ave., cor. Gil Puyat Ave., Makati City.)
Get your tickets from TicketWorld.com.ph.
Photos: Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group