How do you maim a perfectly good musical? Run the show through an abysmally tuned sound system in the NAC’s Southam Hall, one that, on opening night, cranked the volume but frequently made performers sound like they were singing into soup cans, distorting voices so badly that, except for a couple of quieter numbers, lyrics were incomprehensible.
Granted, not understanding lyrics would be a blessing with some musicals. Not so in the case of Waitress, the intelligent and touching remake of the 2007 film of the same name and a four-year Broadway hit (YouTube, bless it’s heart, offers a taste of how good the lyrics by Sara Bareilles, who also composed the music, actually are).
At first, Waitress seems an airy confection. It’s set mainly in Joe’s Pie Diner, a homey, 1950s-style gathering spot somewhere in the American south that sells 27 varieties of pie (set designer Scott Pask’s detail-obsessed diner is especially good).
The story’s focus is the waitress and crackerjack pie-maker Jenna, played by Bailey McCall, whose acting chops are fair but whose voice, despite the disservice it suffers here, is a gorgeous instrument, as adept with a country-flavoured tune as it is with a belter.
Young, badly married and pregnant, Jenna has an affair with her gynecologist, the earnestly nerdy Dr. Pomatter. He’s played by David Socolar, another fine singer (male voices are less distorted than the women’s — a presumably unintentional commentary on a story about female voice and empowerment).
The affair is an unlikely twist, but thanks to the musical’s book by Jessie Nelson, which plays off reality and limitations against dreams and possibility to strong effect, we buy into it as wholeheartedly as do confused Jenna and her ethically challenged, already-married paramour.
Hungry to escape her untenable situation, Jenna is encouraged by the diner’s crusty owner to enter a pie-making contest with a $20,000 prize. Which is pretty much where we’ll leave the plot summary.
Although there’s plenty of singing about sugar and flour and the sheer, sweet pleasures of pie, Waitress has a dark underbelly.
It’s there in the character of Jenna’s abusive husband, Earl, a spineless bully played by a menacing Clayton Howe. He takes his wife’s hard-earned cash at the end of each workday, his casual “hand-it-over” gesture chillingly like that of a pimp. The character seems a deliberate echo of another such cretin, the one in the Dixie Chicks’ 1999 hit single Goodbye Earl, which coincidentally also involved food.
Asked why she doesn’t leave her husband, Jenna replies, “It’s not that easy.” She leaves it at that, but the reasons are depressingly familiar to many women caught like her: She’s penniless with few prospects, has no family and the only thing she’s ever known is this small town, its isolation captured in the set’s painted backdrop of fields and a road that beckons but feels unattainable.
That dark underbelly reveals itself elsewhere.
Call her affair with Dr. Pomatter a fling if you want, but it’s adultery, and Jenna, who was nourished with morality and love by her pie-baking mother, is deeply troubled by the relationship. She and the doctor duet on the funny, rousing number Bad Idea as they prepare to surrender to lust in a sterile examining room, but it’s the “bad” part that ultimately sticks in her craw.
Later, she mourns what she’s lost — or maybe never achieved — in the wistful ballad She Used to Be Mine: “She’s imperfect but she tries… She is lonely most of the time… She is mixed-up and baked in a beautiful pie.”
Alas, under director Susanna Wolk, McCall goes diva at the end of the song, flinging her arms wide and shooting for the rafters rather than taking the more measured approach the moment demands.
Set against such themes of entrapment and blunted hopes are those of female empowerment and solidarity.
Jenna’s two pals and co-waitresses supply those in spades. The brassy Becky (Kennedy Salters) and the timid-but-flowering Dawn (Gabriella Marzetta) have her back, as she has theirs. A Soft Place to Land, a dreamy tune, gives us a chance to appreciate the voices of all three, including Salters’ restrained powerhouse.
Other characters flesh out the story. They include Dawn’s gawky boyfriend, Ogie (the agile Brian Lundy, who gives a stereotyped character flesh and blood) and the grouchy cook, Cal (Jake Mills), who captures much of the show’s ambivalence about life when, asked if he’s happy, replies stoically, “Happy enough.”
There’s also Lulu, Jenna’s cute-as-a-button young daughter, who makes a brief appearance at the end of the show, when the story has moved on. On opening night, she was played by Autumn Jae Boisvert, who acquitted herself admirably and is one of two Ottawa youngsters playing Lulu in this touring production.
Although there’s an on-stage band under conductor/pianist Alyssa Kay Thompson, there’s little dancing in this musical. Instead, choreography is built into occasional ensemble movement and, cleverly, the entrance of props like mobile racks of pie ingredients. Choreographer Lorin Lattoro’s concepts, well-realized here, add a fluidity to the show and underscore its occasional dreamlike qualities.
It’s a shame the sound doesn’t do justice to the hard-working cast and otherwise well-executed production.
Waitress is a Broadway Across Canada presentation running at the NAC until Jan. 5. It was reviewed Wednesday. Tickets and information: broadway.com