By Erica Laidler (A & E Editor).
In a world where marriage can become a burden and unhappiness an epidemic, The Waitress successfully explores the life of a woman who feels she is not able to make her own choices, and the acts of self-empowerment that prove she can.
In its out-of-town premiere in the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA, The Waitress showed why it is destined for Broadway with its portrayal of important themes like unwanted pregnancy, feminism, domestic abuse, and self-importance. The musical is based on writer-director Adrienne Shelly’s film of the same name, and was brought to life onstage by director Diane Paulus, composer Sara Bareilles, and actress Jessie Mueller.
Though trapped in a marriage with a cruel, abusive husband, Jenna is far from isolated. She is surrounded by fellow restaurant servers who are lovable, eccentric, and comedic but whose characters sometimes seem one-dimensional and cliché because they lack depth.
Dawn is anxiety-ridden and sensitive, while rugged and sarcastic Becky is her polar opposite. A slightly vulgar restaurant owner and the cook, a curt and sensible man named Curt, complete the troupe that is dysfunctional and yet, predictably, brings Jenna back to her feet and manages to function after all.
However, not all signs point to The Waitress being another corny musical. Its portrayal of subtle hopelessness and quiet desperation far from lacks finesse; a man named Cal’s response that he’s “happy enough” in the midst of a repetitive small town life and obvious home problems indicates he’s just another social mobility failure who has given up hope of progressing.
Sadly for him, Cal’s story is not one of eventual success in finding life’s meaning, but proves its use by inspiring Jenna’s fear of being similarly stuck. She hates the idea of ending up pregnant and alone; or worse, being alienated under the mitt of her angry husband. This trepidation spurs her determination to change what she prays is not an inevitable future.
Unfortunately, though, the musical’s portrayal of Jenna’s path to a hopefully better future is riddled with some character development inconsistencies.
For example, Jenna’s husband is so inhumane that the fact that Jenna has any qualms at all about leaving him suggests she has psychological issues. But maybe this is intentional on the part of the director and playwright – the natural human fear of change sometimes overrides rationality, after all.
In addition, the man Jenna meets later on and with whom she is immediately enthralled is not obviously deserving of her awe aside from a simple geniality. The lack of complexity in their relationship has the audience wondering whether it is really built to last, but at least it is several steps up from her disastrous marriage and hints at hope for a more pleasant life for Jenna.
And a pleasant life is clearly what Jenna is working for by the end of the musical; she knows that what she has to offer deserves more than the limits of her previous situation.
The show’s music – purely devastating when it needs to be and passionately, innocently hopeful when it doesn’t – is constricted, too, by the one-dimensional plot. But its emotional depth hints that there is more to The Waitress than meets the eye, and that we can expect to see even more power from this desperate but amusing show when it hits Broadway later this year.