Encore Michigan

‘Waitress’ at The Fisher is easy as pie

Review May 09, 2019 David Kiley

DETROIT, Mich.–On its surface, Waitress, the musical based on the independent film of the same name now playing at The Fisher Theatre, is a pretty breezy and somewhat shallow, glossy treatment of a story of an oppressed woman finding inner strength and emerging triumphant.

But at the risk of leaning into a windmill, the story line seems disconcerting and uncomfortable. But that perspective does not seem to be shared by virtually any of the women this critic has queried. And it is puzzling.

Jenna, played by Christine Dwyer, is a hard-working waitress with a serious talent for pie making, who is married to a thick-headed lout, Earl (Jeremy Woodard) and finds herself pregnant. The friction unfolds quickly, and we begin rooting for Jenna to get out of this mess and away from Earl. But here is where it gets weird and edgy. Jenna soon finds herself drawn to her new handsome, suave, golly-gee charming OB-GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Steven Good). The Doc is married, with his wife a resident at the hospital in this southern small town, and in no time at all we find them having an affair on the exam table she is laying on for her prenatal visit.

Eww. Squirm. The doctor’s nurse even walks in on them and merely exits with a comedic shake of the head and her attention more on the pie Jenna brought. Huh?Waitress, the film, came out in 2007, and the musical was developed for debut on Broadway in 2016 on the cusp of the kickoff of the #metoo movement, an investigation of the Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar who abused more than 200 female athletes. I am told by a half-dozen women I queried this week that they did not object to the story line in Waitress in large part because it was clearly consensual, and they understood Jenna’s plight at home.

The relationship between a pregnant woman and her obstetrician seems like one of those relationships that should be squeaky clean and as sacred as one between a woman and priest. But given the appeal of this show to most of the women I have ever met and spoke with, somehow the country-style music ballads and the happy ending of the show eclipses the seeming underlying unseemliness of the plot. So it seems. Moving on.

The whole story line feels like it has kinship with the film Fried Green Tomatoes, and the novel it was based on, except that Jenna’s nasty-piece-of-work husband does not end up as an ingredient in her pies (Now, there’s an idea…a riff on Sweeney Todd?). Indeed, I think that Fried green Tomatoes story would be far better fodder for a musical than Waitress, but producers had a different opinion.

What saps the depth of what was possible here is the almost cartoon-like characters adapted for the musical. Sister waitresses Dawn and Becky are stock characters–Dawn (Ephie Aardema), the super ditzy, nerdy one, and Becky (Maiesha McQueen) the sassy, randy, soul sister to Jenna. Becky’s flirty banter with the big, kind biker-type diner owner Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin) leads to, utterly no surprise, a sexual affair. That twist was seen a mile away in Act One.

One of the brightest turns of the story is the dating-site meet-up between Dawn and an equally nerdy man named Ogie (Jeremy Morse) who steals the stage every time he is on it. His “Never Getting Rid of Me,” is a delight. His and Dawn’s turns are vignettes with nothing much to do with the rest of the story except to contrast their apparent natural soul connection with no obstacles with the plight of Jenna who is torn between her abusive narcissistic husband and her married obstetrician. Yikes.

Much of the music is a solid blend of ballads and country-ish tunes. Some of the stand-out songs are Jenna’s “She Used To be Mine,” and “Everything Changes.” Ms. Dwyer is a terrific belter, and Ms. McQueen, too, has great pipes for her turns in “The Negative,” and the waitress’s “A Soft Place To Land” and her own “I Didn’t Plan It.”

If the story is overly breezy and sugary for a fairly serious set of circumstances and plot twists, I suppose the draw to the show is that it does deal with them without dragging the audience into truly salty depths of, say, Fried Green Tomatoes. But that is it’s weakness as well.