Review: ‘Waitress’ serves up a story you can really bite into

by MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

If you break down the plot for the musical “Waitress,” which opened Tuesday, June 18 at The Bushnell in Hartford, it sounds like a Lifetime movie plot.

A woman is a waitress at a diner in a small town. She specializes in unique, delicious pies. She’s married to an abusive husband, who no one likes. She finds out she is pregnant with his child. She wants to leave the marriage but the pregnancy throws a wrench in the works. She falls in love with a married doctor, which melts her heart. But even that situation is rife with hazards.

How will she ever survive?

However, despite the melodramatic plot, the creatives and cast are able to take what could have been trite and transform it into something delightful and heartfelt.

Christine Dwyer, as Jenna, the waitress referred to in the title, was fabulous in the role. She was sassy. She was conflicted. She was confident. She was filled with doubt. She was wistful. And she was vivacious.

In other words, Dwyer was able to successfully mine all sorts of facets one could expect from someone in Jenna’s situation. Dwyer is able to make her likeable and someone the audience wants to overcome her hardships.

Besides Dwyer’s dramatic performance, which held my attention throughout the evening, Dwyer was the perfect choice to breathe life into the words and music of Sara Bareilles. Dwyer found all the little nuances inside the music. Rather than steamrolling over everything to show off her vocal chops, her approach was akin to a storyteller sitting beside a campfire, putting the focus on the tale not the telling.

There were those small moments in Dwyer’s performance that were touching. In Jenna’s big musical moment of crisis “She Used To Be Mine,” you could catch the glint of tears in Dwyer’s eyes. For that song, Dwyer clearly had become Jenna, trying so hard to pull herself out of the mire.

Although Dwyer was key to the success of the show, the book by Jessica Nelson (based on a motion picture written by Adriene Shelly) is filled with the necessary characters to add interest to this small town that Jenna calls home.

Ephie Aardema and Melody A. Betts as Dawn and Becky, respectively, were great as Jenna’s waitress partners in crime. Both characters have interesting back stories and both actors were great fun to watch. And both actors never failed to make you smile.

Steven Good, as Dr. Pomatter, the married doctor that helps Jenna rediscover what “happy” feels like, was great at offering up that slightly awkward good guy that you can see Jenna needing at this point in time. His duet with Dwyer “Bad Idea” was funny and steamy. Again, like many of the songs composed by Bareilles, that momen helped define the characters and their relationship rather than merely providing an expected dramatic moment.

The show, thanks to the performances of the cast, is an organic whole. You feel as if you are really watching life in a small town, albeit one where the characters break out into song periodically.

One of the keys to the joy of watching “Waitress,” if you haven’t figured it out thus far, is the music composed by Bareilles. The compositions offer touches of pop, jazz, rock, and country, which all serve to illuminate the small moments of these characters’ journeys.

At the end of the night, “Waitress” is one of those shows that leave you with a smile on your lips as you leave the theater, wondering what happens next for these characters. Over the course of two hours-plus, you have really gotten to know these people and you sense you’re going to miss them when you’re gone.

I give “Waitress” at The Bushnell in Hartford 4 out of 4 stars.

The show continues at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford on Wednesday, June 19 and Thursday, June 20 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, June 21 and Saturday, June 22 at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Matinees are Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.

For tickets, go to Bushnell.org.

Christine Dwyer is the lead of ‘Waitress’ now playing at The Bushnell in Hartford.