Waitress – a Delicious Musical Serving Pain as the Main Course

Waitress is a strange beast…

It tells about a woman who finds herself in the predicament of being in an abusive relationship.

As mentioned earlier, the story was inspired by the highly commended film of 2007, written by Adrienne Shelly and starring Keri Russell. Protagonist Jenna is married to a brutal man who humiliates her, physically abuses her and takes all the hard-earned money that she earns as a waitress working at an isolated diner.

As a kid, she constantly had to bear witness to her father physically abusing her mother; her mother had taught her all about strength, love and baking pies… which is a good thing; however, she was also modeled upon the prototype of her mother being co-dependent on the very man that abused her… something that, perhaps, had caused Jenna to have certain “blind spots” when it comes to what she allows men to do to her.

On the lighter side, Waitress is a humorous, goofy musical. Jenna has two stereotypical but lovable sidekicks; one is a sassy black woman, the other a nerdy virgin. There’s a meet-cute with a hot doctor, who works his way into Jenna’s heart by way of a classic rom-com formula. And there’s singing and dancing, both of which are pitch perfect. Music and lyrics are by Sara Bareilles and choreography by Lorin Latarro).

In the epoch of Fun Home and Dear Evan Hansen, this personal-drama type musical is nothing new, but that doesn’t make it any less whimsical and creative. With a few special touches, Bareilles ensures a well-directed combination of heart-felt emotion, gorgeous modern-pop ballads and well-organized, subtle staging.

This musical succeeds in telling a deep story, never concealing Jenna’s pain caused by abuse and her strength in handling it. Never once does Jenna succumb to the temptation of “letting herself go.” She remains the personification of a ray of sunshine filtering through the tiniest hole in the ceiling; at times, her light seems almost faded away completely… at other times, about to burst through in a flash of glory, she outshines all around her.

The song “She Used to Be Mine” is one of the most memorable songs in modern musical history, rivaling great pieces such as “Gravity” from Wicked and “Wait for It” from Hamilton.

Which brings us to the very talented Christine Dwyer, who incited a near-standing ovation when singing “She Used to Be Mine” as Jenna in Waitress during the national tour that’s currently in Houston until Sunday.

Dwyer is a powerful vocalist, and managed to work around the frustration of an unbalanced sound system at the Hobby Center’s Seraphim Hall. Frankly, the center could do with an audio-system upgrade. Fortunately, it did improve towards the middle of the show and Dwyer warmed up during the latter half.

However, Dwyer’s performance didn’t quite portray what the moment commanded. “She Used to Be Mine” is a song about a hero at the lowest point in her journey. The song should not portray strength. Jenna expresses longing, regret and the faded memory of hope, and Dwyer could’ve done better as far as intonation and expression goes. In the Broadway movie, actress Jessie Mueller looked as though she was about to collapse when she sang the song. The expression on her face spelled fear and her voice trembled.

Of course, this is not a fair comparison since someone has yet to outshine Mueller. Let it suffice to state that Dwyer could with some training and practice in order to reach Mueller’s level of singing.

Dwyer artistically displayed Jenna’s bubbly personality more than her worn-down side, which was a one-dimensional angle. One could also feel a slight degree of listlessness in the cast, though its members couldn’t be blamed. Rather the steep performance schedule, constant isolation and long traveling hours involved in such a national tour can take its toll on the body, mind and psyche of a performer.

The scenes of Ogie, eccentric love interest of Jenna’s friend Dawn (Jessie Shelton), are pure comedy. Jeremy Morse shines in the role. Although superfluous to the main theme, these scenes are more delightful than most other moments in Waitress. Ogie reminds us that we are human, and as such our emotions can fluctuate from one moment to the next.

A serious drama professor may be of the opinion that the side stories involving Dawn’s love adventures are unnecessary. However Waitress, whose opening melodies of “butter, sugar” seem to stick for a long time, is about finding joy in the small, tasty things. The musical serves up plenty of these.

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