Waitress at PPAC is sweet but lacks substance

By Kimberly Rau

The hit musical Waitress, written by Jessie Nelson with music and lyrics by Sarah Bareilles and based on the 2007 Adrienne Shelly movie with Keri Russell, is in Providence through the weekend, but whether this tale of a downtrodden baker with a kind heart hits home as well as the movie is, like so many desserts, a matter of taste.

Essentially, Jenna is a pie baker who works in a tiny diner with her two friends. Her getting pregnant is hardly a cause for celebration for her—her overbearing and abusive husband Earl refuses to let her out from under his thumb and keeps her financially tied to him—but when she meets her new doctor, Jenna realizes that she can still feel strongly for someone, and that eventually cheers her up about the coming arrival. Hearkening back to the lessons her own mother taught her, Jenna finds her voice, cleverly disseminated to us though cute pie recipes (Betrayed by My Eggs Pie is a particularly funny one) and finds the strength to stand on her own feet. At its core this is a show ostensibly about female empowerment and chasing one’s dreams, which is something anyone can get behind.

There are several cool things about this show, from the incredibly talented cast to the women-led instrumentals, and all the way down to a gorgeous, simple backdrop that conveys the perfect small-town Southern setting with just a few fields and power lines. Bareilles has given us a few showstopper numbers throughout the almost-three-hour show, as well, including “She Used to Be Mine,” “I Didn’t Plan It” and the hilarious number from a geeky would-be suitor Ogie called “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.”

Christine Dwyer is great as Jenna. Her vocals seemed quiet in the beginning, but I believe that was a sound issue as by Act 2 there was no problem hearing every note, and what a voice Dwyer has! Melody A. Betts, who plays her waitress friend Becky, is just as powerful, and her “I Didn’t Plan It” takes the roof off of the place. Ok, so the song is about how she’s thrilled to be shacking up with her married boss, but we’ll get to that. Betts is a joy to watch, whether she’s singing, speaking, or stopping someone dead in their tracks with a well-timed death stare. Jeremy Morse plays Ogie, the Revolutionary War re-enactor who is besotted with Dawn, the equally nerdy and awkward third waitress (Ephie Aardema), and steals the show with his “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” where he essentially tells Dawn that he’s in love with her (after five minutes) and can’t wait for her to meet his mother. Good thing it works out for them or that bit of stalkerish behavior wouldn’t be nearly as cute, but it does, so it is.

Where the show falls flat, unfortunately, is the script. At the end of Act 1 I wasn’t sure who to be rooting for. Certainly not Earl (as great as Jeremy Woodard is in the role, Earl’s absolutely unredeemable as a person), who we want Jenna to leave, but also…not exactly Jenna, either, when she starts making out with her quite married OB/GYN from Connecticut (played by Steven Good). Dr. Pomatter doesn’t seem any better at hearing Jenna’s needs than Earl is, and has no excuse for why he’s cheating on his wife, who is also a doctor and shows up in the delivery room to tell Jenna how happy she is for her and how her husband can’t stop talking about her. Nice job, doctor. The show seems to glorify adultery, though, as Becky says it’s okay that she’s sleeping with her married boss, because…her boss’ wife is probably gay. It’s 2019 and we’re dealing with “if they’re gay—or you just think they are—you can cheat on them”? The most sympathetic couple is Ogie and Dawn, and they’re written to be goofy beyond believability. But it seems like most of the supporting characters are boiled down to one trope or another.

Oh, and Jenna’s dreams and goals? End up not being met because of her winning the contest we hear about for most of the show, but by deus ex machina in the form of an old man and a big check. Perhaps that’s more realistic but it’s also kind of beside the point in a show that’s supposed to be about perseverance and chasing your dreams. Then again, I’ve been told the movie centers more around Jenna’s abusive relationship than the musical does—here, Earl is definitely terrible but almost seems like background noise for most of the show—which also takes some of the expected gravitas out of the plot.

Overall, this is a fun show and fans of the movie will especially like it. As an added bonus, the two little girls who switch off the role of Lulu are locally cast, and the one we saw on press night was adorable. Go, enjoy it (there’s a lot going for it!), just don’t expect it to feed your soul. Kind of like dessert.

Waitress runs through Sunday, June 2, at the Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset St., Providence. Tickets start at $62 and may be obtained at the box office, online at ppacri.org, or by calling 401.421.2787.