“Waitress” at the Bushnell Shows Women taking Charge of Their Lives

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Ephie Aardema, Christine Dwyer, Melody A. Betts. Photo by Daniel Lippitt

By Karen Isaacs

 Once again, the sound design/sound system created a barrier to enjoying Waitress, the Broadway musical now at the Bushnell through June 23. At times it was screechy, other times overloud, and blurred the song lyrics so most of the time, I had no idea what the performers were singing.

It’s too bad, because overall the show was certainly enjoyed by the audience. This musical is based on an independent film of the same name thatt was transformed into a musical with lyrics and music by Sara Bareilles and book by Jessie Nelson.

The national tour has a talented cast who work hard and put over the material with sincerity.

Jenna, played by Christine Dwyer, is a waitress in a small town diner in the south. She’s known for baking delicious pies with both unusual names and flavor combinations. But she feels trapped in an abusive marriage with Earl. Her two fellow waitresses are also seemingly trapped. Jenna learns of a pie baking contest with a $25,000 first prize coming soon; her friends convince her that she could win and she becomes determined to find a way to get there. But one stumbling block is how to get the money to enter since Earl demands her tips each day. A more major obstacle is she learns she is pregnant – and she is not happy about it. In some ways she sees her life going the way of her mother’s, who was also trapped in an abusive marriage.

That’s the set up and while you may think you know how it will all end, you will only be partially correct unless you’ve seen the film.

The pregnancy isn’t the only complication; when Jenna visits her doctor, she finds that there is a new doctor taking over who is young and attractive. You can guess what happens.

Added to the mix are the two other waitresses and the diner’s cook/manager; each with their own romantic problems plus there is Joe, an elderly man who is a demanding but constant customer.

The show attempts to mix some fantasy and much physical comedy into what is a serious story and issue. This amalgamation doesn’t always work.  Plus so many of the characters are stereotypes. Jenna’s two friends are the kooky and lonely Dawn and the older Becky, who is sassy and earthy.  Even the cook, Cal is a stereotype. Ephie Aardema as Dawn does the best job of moving the character beyond the stereotype but it may be that it is the more developed characters.

The doctor, Dr. Pomatter played well by Steven Good is another type of stereotype – this one of the more demeaning types. He seems clueless and overall unprofessional in so many ways.

Stereotypes are often present in musicals (and even dramas), but the best works develop the characters so that they go beyond stereotype. Nelson and Bareilles are only partially successful in developing these into unique individuals.

For me, the two best numbers in the show are performed by supporting characters. The first act comes alive with “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” sung by Dawn’s new boyfriend, Ogie who is as kooky as her. Jeremy Morse plays Ogie and walks a fine line between being endearing and creepy. The other song that impressed me was “Take It from an Old Man” sung by Joe in act two. Richard Kline is both cantankerous and touching.

As the heavy – Jenna’s husband Earl – Jeremy Woodward is appropriately self-centered and brutish. The character disappears for long periods only resurfacing when he is needed for a plot complication.

The production rises and falls on the actress playing Jenna. Dwyer conveys how beaten down she is and how trapped she feels.

This is a show with the musicians on stage though they interact very little with the cast.

Yes, this is a show about women taking charge of their lives. It will resonate with some audiences but others may find the mish mash of styles and some of the obvious plot elements disappointing.

For tickets visit the Bushnell or call 860-987-5900.

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