Waitress serves up pop hits with a surprisingly political message

WAITRESS by Jessie Nelson and Sara Bareilles (Mirvish). At the Ed Mirvish Theatre (244 Victoria). To August 18. $59-$179. mirvish.com. See listing. Rating: NNNN

On the surface, Waitress might seem like a frivolous musical centred around pie. Song lyrics by Sara Bareilles of radio hit Love Song fame brim with baking references, flour and sugar are tossed around by the ensemble and mobile pan racks double as dance partners on stage. But under its sugary lattice crust and upbeat musical numbers is a devastating story about domestic abuse, adultery and the lack of options for unwanted pregnancies in Americas South.

Christine Dwyer stars as Jenna, a server and talented pie-maker at a small-town diner. When she discovers shes pregnant, shes hesitant to share the news with her deadbeat, alcoholic husband (Jeremy Woodard), and her co-workers encourage her to enter a baking contest for prize money to help her and the baby escape and start over. Meanwhile, Jenna falls for her new gynaecologist (Steven Good), which offers her fleeting moments of happiness. Only problem? Theyre both married.

Dwyer, whos played Wickeds Elphaba on Broadway, clearly has the vocal chops and endurance required to play Jenna. Her controlled, multi-octave range is featured in nearly every number and never falters, even when performing Lorin Latarros dream-like choreography. The fear and hopelessness of her Jenna is so palpable that by the time she breaks into She Used To Be Mine, the shows emotional climax, you’re tempted to want to dive at the stage and throw your arms around this person.

Fortunately, diner employees played by Melody A. Betts and Ephie Aardema provide the comedic and emotional foils to downtrodden Jenna in order to lift Waitress out of complete misery.

Aardema nails the physical comedy required in her solo and holds her own against scene-stealing patron Ogie (Jeremy Morse) in the musicals most fun number, Never Ever Getting Rid Of Me. Goods Dr. Pomatter is smooth, reliable and kind the fact that hes crossing patient-doctor boundaries and cheating on his wife feels secondary to Jennas happiness.

Bareilless experience writing pop songs translates brilliantly into musical theatre, and her skills shine particularly brightly in duets like Bad Idea. A five-piece band harnessed by conductor/pianist Lilli Wosk (makes sense, since Bareilles typically accompanies herself on keys) sits right on stage and is effortlessly part of director Diane Pauluss vision and set designer Scott Pasks pastel-hued diner. Suttirat Anne Larlarbs costumes draw inspiration from the classics and feel appropriate for small-town America.

While Waitress adapted by Jessie Nelson from the 1997 Keri Russell movie might seem like a period piece, harkening back to a time when life was simpler and folks made do with less, its underlying message that women must be empowered to make decisions about their bodies, finances and destiny feels more urgent than ever.


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