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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Theatre review: Waitress plays it safe

Grown-up themes don’t get fully baked in this agreeable musical

There is a spicy musical buried inside the predictability of Waitress. To use a pie analogy like those that pop-up regularly in this musical, it is the difference between a traditional apple pie with cinnamon and one that uses cardamom. While they both may be tasty, the more exotic spice adds an element of surprise.

Based on Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film of the same name, the Sara Bareilles (music & lyrics) and Jessie Nelson (book) penned musical is the story of Jenna, a waitress and pie-maker at a diner in a rural town somewhere in the south. In an abusive relationship with her husband Earl, Jenna unexpectedly becomes pregnant and begins an affair with her OBGYN. Surrounded by several colourful characters from the diner, it is up to Jenna to find a way to escape.

While dealing in some very grown-up themes, heightened by some very adult staging from director Susanna Wolk, Waitress never really goes as dark as it could or should. Instead, it seems content to just move along its predictable, almost rom-com trajectory. As Keith Phipps said in his A.V. Club review of its film counterpart, it is more akin to the sitcom Alice than to Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

If the story is a little muddled, so was the sound on opening night. This is a shame as Bareilles’s music is good, although you probably won’t find yourself humming any of its tunes after the curtain falls. Hopefully, they will get the sound balance under control before the show ends its short Vancouver run. The plot may not be challenging, but when it is a musical, the music and its lyrics should be everything.

Much to the surprise of those of us sitting orchestra right, the music is actually played by a five-piece band on stage. Impossible to see from our vantage point, it wasn’t until the curtain call as the cast acknowledged them that we finally realized there were musicians on stage.

In a couple of scenes, members of the unseen band do make appearances on stage in what is this show’s biggest strength: Wolk’s often inventive staging. Whether using the ensemble as a Greek chorus, having them move set pieces or props, or as a collective heartbeat in one particular number, it is often magical.

There are some excellent performances too from this cast, although there are times when they feel like they performing in different plays.

The best voice of the night belonged to David Socolar as Jenna’s doctor, who managed to overcome the sound issues. He also found the right balance between his comedic and dramatic scenes.

That balance was something that seemed to elude Brian Lundy as the nerdy Ogie, who goes broadly comic and stays there. While there is no denying his character is a crowd favourite, Wolk could do the show a favour by reining him in a bit.

Bailey McCall does a nice job as Jenna with some fine support from her friends at the diner (Jake Mills, Gabriella Marzetta, and Kennedy Salters). McCall is particularly good when paired with Socolar. Their duet “You Matter to Me” is the heartfelt highlight of the show.

Five-year-old Vancouver actor Kate Whiddington plays Lulu.
Vancouver actor Kate Whiddington (above) plays Jenna’s daughter Lulu on alternating nights with Alice Antoinette Comer.

Of course, one cannot overlook the appearance of five-year-old Vancouver actor Kate Whiddington who, along with Alice Antoinette Comer, shares the role of Jenna’s daughter Lulu.

Cast as part of a local audition that saw over 30 young girls, Whiddington is the consummate professional. Making a very (very) late appearance, she still managed to find bright energy to spare despite having been waiting in the wings for 2+ hours.

To call a show “agreeable” is probably not a term musical producers or writers want to hear, but Waitress is that kind of show. Treading too softly around its spicier underbelly, you may, like me, wish there was a whole lot more cardamom.

Waitress with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles and a book by Jessie Nelson. Based on the motion picture written by Adrienne Shelly. A Broadway Across Canada presentation of a NETworks Presentations production. On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (630 Hamilton St, Vancouver) until November 17. Visit for tickets and information.

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