When Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 small, independent film “Waitress” was turned into a Broadway musical in 2015, it did so as anything but a small, independent stage show. With a book by screenwriter Jessie Nelson, and music and lyrics by Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, the musical adaptation of “Waitress” was largely a vehicle for Tony-winning actress Jessie Mueller to shine in the lead role.
The national tour of “Waitress” (playing through Jan. 27 at Bass Concert Hall, courtesy of Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts) maintains much of the spirit of the Broadway run, directed by Diane Paulus. However, without the anchoring power of Mueller’s command performance, which so defined the production when it opened, some of the more problematic aspects of the narrative become harder to overlook.
Jenna, the protagonist, is a baker and waitress working at a “pie diner” who discovers that she is pregnant. She's trapped in an unhappy, abusive marriage and does not want to have a baby. Even as she plans to enter a baking contest and use the winnings to leave her husband, Earl, she starts an affair with her married obstetrician, Dr. Jim Pomatter.
Much like the film from which it was adapted, the musical’s book is uneven. It shines in the scenes of hapless romantic comedy between Jenna and Pomatter and in the empowering friendships Jenna has with her fellow waitresses and best friends, Becky and Dawn. However, it also makes its protagonist beholden to the saving grace of men on several occasions, and fully justifies the stalker-ish tendencies of Dawn’s love interest, Ogie, thus undercutting some of the power of its feminist message.
What makes “Waitress” so charming and enjoyable, though, are the excellent music and songs as well as the top-notch cast. It is Jeremy Morse’s hilarious and naively innocent portrayal of Ogie, for example, that makes the character likable despite the questionable way in which he comes off in the script. Similarly, the power of Christine Dwyer’s performance as Jenna imbues the character with a fierceness and intense depth that comes out in her songs more than in her dialogue. Though the ensemble is strong, this is Dwyer’s show, as she proves multiple times through several powerhouse musical numbers.
Though its ultimate message is somewhat muddled, “Waitress” is ostensibly a paeon to female friendship and empowerment. Indeed, the production made history as the first Broadway show where all the top creative spots were filled by women. That spirit still remains and, combined with a remarkably strong score performed by a talented cast, it makes for a charming, if uneven, slice of Broadway brought to Austin.
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