Written by: Treasure McCorkle | December 6th, 2023
Waitress: The Musical (Diane Paulus/Bret Sullivan, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
Based on the late Adrienne Shelley’s 2007 film of the same name, Waitress: The Musical began as a theater production in 2013, with music and lyrics written by Sara Bareilles, directed by Diane Paulus. Now comes a live recording of a handful of 2021 performances of the production. Its popularity over the years serves as a testament to Bareilles’ writing and scoring capabilities and to how necessary it is to tell sincere, sometimes morally gray stories about life and where it could take us.
Our opening sequence leads into the diner that Jenna (Bareilles) and her two closest friends and coworkers, Dawn (Caitlan Houlahan) and Becky (Charity Angel Dawson), open up to customers for the day. The audience can tell that Jenna is hard-working to a fault; as an expert pie maker for Joe’s Diner, she often tucks her problems into her desserts. What’s the problem today, you may ask? She’s pregnant.
We don’t realize why this is a sincere problem until her husband, Earl (Joe Tippett, Spirited, and Bareilles’ real-life romantic partner), enters shortly after an impromptu pregnancy test at work, immediately shedding light onto his abusive and controlling demeanor by demanding Jenna’s tips for the day and suggesting that she give up her baking dreams and quit working to stay at home more. As is the case with many real-life cases of physical and mental abuse in marriage, Jenna follows in the footsteps of her mother, who found solace in baking as an escape from her own abusive husband, Jenna’s father. The trauma runs deep, and although Jenna doesn’t have the tools (or confidence, really) to leave Earl, she channels all of that trauma and emotional turmoil into her baking in order to make impressively unique and tasty desserts, just like her mother.
Unlike her mother, however, after suddenly discovering that her old OB/GYN has retired, Jenna has to navigate forming a bond with the new one during her pregnancy. He’s a sort of neurotic but kind man about her own age, Dr. Jim Pomatter (Drew Gehling, A Good Person). This is where the morals become gray and the question of the story becomes less of what is “right versus wrong” and more of “am I happy?”.
The themes of Waitress are strong and consistent throughout: love, self-worth, and even self-sacrifice. Most of the key characters have an arc of their own; they are not simply meant to supplement Jenna’s goals. Their stories are entirely capable of functioning independently of Jenna, but what holds them all together is this ideal of love persevering in all forms despite what the world throws at you. Jenna has a sincere and necessary support system surrounding her.
Despite this, it’s a bit difficult to resonate with Dr. Pomatter. He plays a substantial role in the film, and becomes one of Jenna’s key sources of happiness during her pregnancy, but his lack of depth, aside from “eccentric and sweet doctor from Connecticut,” undercuts any sympathy that we may have for him and his own situation. He’s likable for his kind attitude until we’re reminded that he’s married, too, and his wife adores him.
Going into this film as someone who has seen multiple different live stage productions of Waitress, not only are the new and somewhat unique portrayals of the characters an adjustment (in a positive way), but so is the added intimacy of the cinematography. Though very straightforward and effective in its intention to highlight the intricacies of the staging and acting, occasionally the cinematography reads almost as music videos do, especially with the song that has transcended the musical itself: “She Used to Be Mine.” The sweeping crane shots are sometimes distracting.
Overall, Waitress is clearly meant to be an inspiration to anyone facing hard times. It’s certainly functioned as that to its fans. It’s a very easy-to-digest introduction to the musical theater world while packed with strong and memorable songs, lively characters, and a story grounded so deeply in reality that anyone can relate.