WAITRESS @ National Arts Centre [review]

Arts Coverage

Broadway Across Canada kicked off a new decade by bringing Waitress to Ottawa. Based on Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film, the musical is a heartwarming tale of friendship, regrets and new beginnings.

Jenna is a waitress at a small-town diner, where she’s known for baking whimsical pies. It’s the kind of job you’d expect to find in a Hallmark movie, although it would be hard to find a greeting card for Jenna’s situation: when she finds out she’s pregnant by her selfish, violent husband, she warns her doctor not to congratulate her.

Jenna sees an out in the form of an out-of-town baking contest, which, if she won, would leave her with enough money to leave her husband and start a new life. Pinning all her hopes on this prize money, she starts quietly stockpiling her tips to pay for the trip. She also starts sleeping with her gynecologist.

As a dreamer beaten down by years of abuse, lead actress Bailey McCall radiates kindness and hope without any sense of naivety; Clayton Howe is appropriately unpleasant as her deadbeat husband Earl. David Socolar is also excellent as Jenna’s sweet but awkward love interest, nailing the combination of gentleness and weakness necessary for his character (a very nice guy who nonetheless cheats on his lovely wife) to be not only believable but likeable.

The show balances poignant drama with humour, enhanced by original music from singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles. Known for piano-pop hits like “Love Song,” Bareilles has a knack for cloaking scathing lyrics in sweet-as-sugar melodies.

Although none of the songs here quite reach the level of her solo output, Waitress is an impressive display of her versatility, balancing light comedic numbers with heartbreaking ballads like the regretful “She Used To Be Mine.”

“It Only Takes a Taste,” a toe-tapping pop ditty about love at first bite, is followed by the chilling “You Will Still Be Mine,” a dark twist on the nostalgic rock anthem that has Earl and Jenna reminiscing on their early courtship (“I had my 6 string and you had…your own thing, but I don’t remember what it is”). Jenna participates stiffly, a look of regret and dread stamped on her face as she sings along numbly to the love song Earl wrote for her as a teenager.

The show’s funniest sequence (“Never Ever Getting Rid of Me”) sees Jenna’s co-worker Dawn (an endearingly nerdy Gabriella Marzetta) fall for the socially awkward weirdo who shows up at the diner after a terrible blind date. Brian Lundy is instantly hilarious in the role, striking the right balance of creepiness and sweetness; his persistence borders on stalking, but he eventually wins Dawn over with his strikingly similar quirks and a shared loved of Revolutionary War re-enactments.

(Dawn’s earlier number, “When He Sees Me,” is a delightfully girl group-ish composition that’s equal parts frantic and dreamy).

The strongest vocal performance comes from Kennedy Salters in “I Didn’t Plan It,” which has a defiant Becky defending her affair with her married boss. (To be fair, they’re both dealing with difficult situations at home, due to circumstances beyond their control). “I won’t undo what I’m doing to sit in judgement of what makes us human,” she sings, dismissing Jenna’s (hypocritical) judgement; “I don’t claim to be proud, but my head won’t be hung in shame.”

The show also boasts a scene-stealing supporting cast. Jerica Exum gets lots of laughs as Norma, a feisty nurse who has a habit of interrupting Jenna’s dalliances with the good doctor. Jake Mills is also endlessly amusing as Jenna’s gruff boss.

Michael R. Douglass plays another prickly but loveable character as Joe, the cantankerous old man who owns the diner. Joe has been married at least three times and has no shortage of unhelpful stories: upon finding out that Jenna is pregnant, he tells her about an ex-girlfriend who suffered a miscarriage (“Almost married her up,” he reflects; “Close call!”). But he sees a kindred spirit in Jenna, and dispenses some surprisingly wise advice.

The show is impeccably timed, both in terms of the skill of the performers and the professionalism of the crew, whose seamless transitions mirror the bustle of a busy diner. A neat moving set seamlessly transforms from diner to doctor’s office to Jenna’s wood-panelled living room, equal parts homey and oppressive.

Mixing Jessie Nelson’s clever dialogue and Bareilles’ fun songs with high production values and an exceptionally talented cast, Broadway Across Canada’s production of Waitress is very much worth seeing.

It runs at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre until January 5th.

Title: Waitress

Written by: Jessie Nelson (book) and Sara Bareilles (music and lyrics); based on the film written and directed by Adrienne Shelly)

Venue: National Arts Centre, Ottawa

Date: Jan. 3/2020 (runs from Dec. 31/2019-Jan. 5/2020)

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