On the top layer, Waitress is sweet and fun with beautiful ingredients in the form of a stellar cast. But dig a little deeper and we find there are a lot more layers to the pie. Waitress is so much more than the fluffy romcom musical of a movie it’s marketed as. It’s a story of female friendship, and it’s a tale of making the best out of stumbling through life.
First the delicious top layer. It’s a beautiful musical and a brilliantly crafted one. And it looks glorious. Being transported to the slightly brighter than life itself pie shop by Scott Pasek’s design is a glorious piece of musical theatre escapism. It’s also a genuine musical-comedy, with Jessie Nelson writing a book that’s filled with both wit and gorgeously comedic set pieces. Meanwhile Sara Bareilles’ music and lyrics walk a brilliant line of pop perfection and musical theatre storytelling.
All of which is brought to life by a brilliantly talented cast. From the exceptionally funny Laura Baldwin as Dawn and Marisha Wallace as Becky. They form the perfect support duo for Katherine McPhee as Jenna. Really coming into her own in Act 2, she has a subtle but rooted understanding of Jenna’s character, and a voice that matches Bareilles pop-rock score perfectly. While Stephen Leask as Cal is scene stealing funny (often with the help of a spatula).
Meanwhile the men in Waitress are mostly there for backup. But even so David Hunter gives a gloriously adorkable performance as Dr Pomatter, ticking any boxes for women whose type is ‘tall dark and geeky’. If broad comedy is what you like predictably Jack McBrayer as Ogie has it, if not so much on the singing front.
How often in musical theatre do you see a show where the men very much play second fiddle? Not often. And while David Hunter’s Dr Pommatter is charming and funny and dorky and yes very much fall-in-loveable, he’s not the centre of the story. Neither is Jack McBrayer’s Ogie, or Stephen Leask’s Cal, who form Dawn and Becky’s love interests. In fact, the love interests are very much the B-plot of this musical.
Everything about Waitress as production is Broadway-slick and yes fluffy and heart-warming. But there’s something more going on under the pie-crust. It might not be heavy-handed, and at times Nelson’s book might veer too quickly from the more serious moments, but it’s there- a mix of elements we don’t usually see in a musical of this kind.
The crux of Waitress is that everyone in it is a little bit flawed, and everyone in it feels truly human. When Becky sings ‘I didn’t Plan it’ she could be summing up the entire musical. Every character has something they are living with, dealing with that makes them less than ‘perfect’ but more than human. From Becky dealing with her husband who is incapacitated and unwell, to Cal’s wife who has struggled with her sexuality. The book plays them for laughs, but it’s a darker edge to the humour- that line of humour that skirts uncomfortably close to the truth. And what of the centre of it all, Jenna in an unhappy, abusive marriage, who escapes into an affair. It\’s not the usual Broadway love story. The characters don’t always make good decisions, they certainly don’t always do the ‘right thing’ but the story doesn’t judge them for it. And that’s what makes it a powerful and unusual piece.
And from a feminist reading there are a few angles that seem like easy targets, Jenna’s pregnancy, being gifted the diner by Earl. But actually, it’s much like the rest of it, not as simple as that. While the trope of a woman ‘finding herself’ or being ‘whole’ when having a baby is far too well worn, and one that is as infuriating as a woman declaring ‘you complete me’ to a man, that’s not what Waitress is saying. Jenna sings that ‘we are both born today’ yes, but there’s a difference between finding yourself and going looking for only one thing. Jenna didn’t want the baby, but that baby becomes her means of saving herself. And nobody can say fairer than that. And while Earl might gift her the diner, firstly who are any of us to deny a fictional stroke of fairytale luck anyway? But also, he might gift her it, but several years later it isn’t a thriving business because of a man, it’s because of the woman who runs it.
Above all Waitress is full of love. Messy complicated love, but love nonetheless. And that’s what makes it so wonderful. Bareilles gets that in the songs too, which is where much of Waitress’ best storytelling comes in. We get the insight into the characters the broader comedy of the book just stops shy of. There’s a reason ‘You Matter to Me’ feels both like a stab to the heart- in a musical about sugar and sweetness, it cuts to the heart of love without trying to sweeten it. There’s a real honesty in that song, one more powerful than more elaborated musical declarations of love. Meanwhile ‘She Used to be Mine’ manages to be both desperately sad, and honest, but also empowering, in its longing for something more. Bareilles also doesn’t end on a triumphant note, more a quietly hopeful one. ‘Everything Changes’ could have been a number written from years later, when everything was ok. Instead, the real final number is at the moment where everything has changed for Jenna, but we’re still not sure how or if for the better. It’s a brave moment for the character and the musical. Because it’s not what anyone might expect.
Waitress is a musical that can make you weep with the beauty of it. It is, it seems, a bit like baking. And Waitress shows us all the ingredients that go into baking that pie- a bit messy, maybe not quite seem like they go together, but ultimately making something beautiful.