By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The Broadway musical that has landed on the Jube stage this week, like a slice of the daily special on our plate, is a tale of self-discovery and empowerment.
Powered from a bottomless larder of pastry references, Waitress, by composer/lyricist Sara Bareilles and writer Jessie Nelson from the modest 2007 movie (starring Keri Russell and E-town’s Nathan Fillion), is a little bit savoury, and more than a little sweet. Much like the “deep-dish blueberry bacon pie” invented by its sad, small-town diner waitress/ pie-maker heroine Jenna (Bailey McCall).
The last time pies got made on the Jube stage, Mrs. Lovett, another pie virtuoso, was making them in Sweeney Todd — out of Mr. Todd’s deceased clientele. Waitress is, to say the least, a contrast. At Joe’s Pie Diner, just off a countryside highway in the South, flour is fairy dust; sugar is the elixir of life. And Jenna’s only form of self-expression is turning out pies with fanciful names like Mermaid Marshmallow pie — and edgier ones too, like Betrayed By My Eggs Pie or My Husband Is A Jerk Pot Pie…. And he is, too. A jerk that is. Earl (Clayton Howe) is an abusive lout with a violent streak, who pockets her tips at the end of the day.
“My whole life is in here/ In this kitchen baking/ What a mess I’m making….”
Jenna feels trapped in her life, as she sings in one of the musical’s best numbers, the climactic She Used To Be Mine. The prospect of a pie-baking contest with a $20,000 prize feels like an exit strategy. And then, as she finds out she’s pregnant, a not very welcome surprise, an unexpected love story happens: Jenna falls for her appealingly nervous married gynaecologist Dr. Pomatter (David Socolar) and he falls for her. And, even if doomed, it’s a life-changing experience.
Having an affair with your gynaecologist: the musical acknowledges the queasiness of that in scenes of amusing awkwardness that afford the rare sight of stirrups as a comic prop. Their piquant duet It Only Takes A Taste (“sometimes one bite is more than enough/To know you want more of the thing you just got a taste of …”) has a kind of teasing hesitancy about it. Bareilles’s lyrics are consistently salted to perfection. And their affair progresses to a less oblique love ballad You Matter To Me, delivered with lovely simplicity by McColl and Socolar, who both capture ambivalence, via different routes.
On opening night, the initial scenes were marred (as often seems to happen in touring musicals) by a harsh, tinny sound mix. Joe’s Pie Diner is possibly the loudest eatery in the South; nobody talks when they can holler. McCall’s Jenna, and her fellow waitresses Becky (Kennedy Salters) and Dawn (Gabriella Marzetta) who, along with the crusty (ha!) diner boss Cal (Jake Mills), sound at the outset like they’re auditioning for an outdoor production in a windy city. But this rights itself; rolling dough can be calming. It takes a little while to warm to the charm of Waitress, but I did.
McCall is a strong singer, with an endearing smile that hints of sadness within. Socolar, who has a lustrous voice too, plays the doctor with a goofy, acrobatic humour forefront that puts him somewhat in competition with the show’s designated geek Ogie. The latter, played by Brian Lind (who has a certain piquant resemblance to Pee Wee Herman), is the supple ultra-nerd that fellow ultra-nerd Dawn, who’s played Betsy Ross in 33 Civil War re-enactments, lands via a five-minute dating site. Marzetta is a delight as the flaky one; ditto Salters as the brassy one. Their romantic entanglements are the comical version of Jenna’s predicament. And Lind gets to deliver the acrobatic showstopper Never Ever Getting Rid Of Me whilst ricocheting through the diner. As someone says of baking, “the fuller the condiments the fuller the experience.” This guy’s a condiment on legs.
So, it’s is by no means a low-cal cooking-light version of Waitress that’s come our way. Scott Pask’s set, lit dramatically by Ken Billington, takes us to a country diner with a view of the countryside. Dr. Pomatter’s office and Jenna and Earl’s place, with its classically awful fake-wood panelling and harvest-gold couch, arrive onstage by human agency. And the excellent six-piece band onstage led by pianist Alyssa Kay Thompson, deliver Bareilles’s melodic and rhythmic score on real instruments. A grand piano counts as à la mode.
Broadway Across Canada
Written by: Jessie Nelson (from the Adrienne Shelly movie) and composer/lyricist Sara Bareilles
Original direction by: Diane Paulus
Starring: Bailey McCall, Kennedy Salters, Gabriella Marzetta, David Socolar
Where: Jubilee Auditorium
Running: through Sunday
Tickets: ticketmaster.ca, 1-855-985-4357