BWW Review: WAITRESS Flips the Script at the Benedum
If you follow the action on the main boards, you've likely noticed that the current revival of Carousel, starring Josh Henry and Jessie Mueller, is under a certain amount of scrutiny for the questionable sexual politics inherent in the material and amplified by the staging. The classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (one of the most successful fusions of musical theatre and operetta forms yet attempted), if you aren't familiar with it, tells the story of an emotionally stunted, abusive menial laborer and his wife, who he married young and never treated well. He hits her, gets her pregnant when they are not financially or emotionally equipped to care for a baby, and loses his job.
This is the hero of Carousel, by the way. An antihero perhaps, but one treated in a decidedly sentimental light and redeemed at the end when he realizes that hitting and lashing out is just the way he tried to show his love. Not exactly a fable for the Time's Up era, which makes Waitress the perfect musical for this moment. It's the anti-Carousel, and also starred Jessie Mueller in its Broadway debut.
Remember that plot summary for Carousel I posted above? Waitress is essentially just that, but from the wife's perspective. Pie-maker and diner Waitress Jenna (Desi Oakley) invents pies every day as a way to channel her emotions and frustration over her pregnancy and dysfunctional marriage to ne'er-do-well Earl (Nick Bailey). Needing a human connection more than a purely culinary one, Jenna begins sleeping with her gynecologist Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart), who is sweet, caring, sincere, hopeful, and everything Earl is not. She hopes to save as much money as she can, escape town with the baby, and enter a pie contest that could give her a shot at a better life. Naturally, things do not go as planned.
Dramedy is a tough genre. It's easy to play or write light comedy or pure melodrama, but to maintain a balance between the two tones without descending into camp takes skill. Thankfully, Jessie Nelson's book (adapted both from Adrienne Shelly's original screenplay and from her unpublished works left after her death) balances the weightiness of unwanted pregnancy, fear of not loving your own child, and the realities of abusive relationships with heavy dashes of both levity and surrealism. The prerecorded voice of Sara Bareilles- strongly implied in-show to be the remembered voice of Jenna's late mother- pops frequently into the narrative, interrupting the action for Jenna to launch into a brief flight of fancy. In these inspired moments of music, prop comedy and interpretive dance, Jenna digs into her psyche and uses her emotions to design a new pie perfect for that specific state of being. It's this sort of light detachment from digging in too deep that allows the show to maintain its heart while coasting along the surface. During musical numbers, band members frequently wander out from their onstage platform into the action around them, such as a dreamlike interlude with a standing bass player, or the appearance of the entire ensemble joining the band during the Act 1 finale.
The cast, though not nearly as star-studded as the Broadway version, deliver heartfelt interpretations of roles that would otherwise be stock sitcom characters. Desi Oakley's Jenna is rooted and relatable, showing great heart in her musical performances while allowing that same heart to shine through the cracks in Jenna's muted, withdrawn everyday life. Her romantic counterpart, Bryan Fenkart's Dr. Pomatter, is constructed and played with extreme delicacy- not in years has a romantic lead had to balance both the tenderness and emotional sincerity and the physical, even slapstick, comedy with which Pomatter is frequently laden. This is not a role for a leading man who can do some comedy, this is a role for a clown with untapped heart, and Fenkart delivers, particularly in what can be called musical theatre's absolute funniest sex and pie montage. (One can imagine a younger Martin Short or Steve Martin in the role... much easier than one can imagine Jason Mraz, who currently plays Pomatter opposite Sara Bareilles on Broadway.) Completing the triangle is Earl, who Nick Bailey portrays with subtle touché of insecurity and fear beneath his tough-guy redneck exterior. He's still clearly a bad man and a misogynist, but rarely shades into cartoonishness.
Perhaps I haven't spoken much about the supporting leads yet, but that's only because their side stories intersect with Jenna's with surprising rarity. This is one of the clearest examples of A and B plotting since Oklahoma! pioneered that plot structure. Sassy waitress Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) loves her invalid husband, but is having an affair with the more vital Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), the diner's grouchy manager. Dawson has an amazing voice, and Dunkin finds the meat in a one-dimensional role without any singing, but both of them are saddled with the most sitcom-generic of characters. Lenne Klingaman fares better as buttoned-up waitress Dawn, who learns to open up and love life with the help of her persistent, quirky suitor Ogie, as played by Jim Hogan. Hats off to Hogan, handling one of the most difficult comedic roles in contemporary musical theatre, charming the audience and winning over Dawn at the same time. We have every reason to see Ogie as a loser, a creep, or even a stalker- in his very first scene, he must bring enough joy and innocence to his persistence that we see why Dawn comes to fall for him quickly. Finally, Larry Marshall (who played a manic Simon Zealotes in the first Jesus Christ Superstar film) brings both warmth and crustiness to the role of Old Joe, the diner's owner and chief patron. At first, I was a little uneasy with seeing a black man in the role- there's a certain touch of the outdated "Magic Negro" trope around a lovably raunchy old black man who is always handing out sage advice and solving white people's problems with handy deus ex machina moments. (It's not an inherently offensive trope so much as a trite one- the Magic Negro cliché dates all the way back to Uncle Remus.) Nonetheless, Marshall overcomes this slight cultural baggage to make Old Joe more than just a Morgan Freeman wananbe.
Running through all of this love and drama is Sara Bareilles's score, which blends her customary theatrical chamber pop with touches of old-school and contemporary country, befitting the story's Deep South setting. The show's prologue, a prerecorded song by Bareilles about the need to turn off one's cell phone in the theatre, is actually a fascinating framing device for the show's musical style, as it introduces Bareilles's voice as another musical instrument in the show's arsenal. Like many singer-songwriters today, Bareilles uses multiple layers of harmonized, Autotuned vocals not as backup singers but as a textural element, similar to the way one would use the buttons on an accordion. It's a particular sound-design element that doesn't work the same with a number of live voices harmonizing, so the use of Bareilles vocals during several moments in the show adds to the sound of the band, and not the cast.
After the show, I had a lively discussion with two of my friends about the show's themes of female empowerment and how it ties in with the concept of monogamy: bad marriages obviously need to be ended, but is even a good marriage inherently unsustainable without adultery, as Cal suggests, and most of the characters seem to believe? Can you love your spouse and cheat on them at the same time, without being a hypocrite? We had lots to discuss, but we agreed on exactly one thing: all of us liked pie.