The recent musicals of the Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group have delved into issues of inclusion, the celebration of diversity, and how individuals from disparate backgrounds find reconciliation.
“Kinky Books” stands out. “Jersey Boys” cements a friendship and professional relationship in near shatters. “Fun Home” has no easy answers but gives its characters space to grow and gather strength through their ordeals.
“Waitress,” directed by Bobby Garcia, continues this thrust. It’s a sprightly musical that digs deep into the seemingly not-so-happy lives of the blue-collar townsfolk in America’s heartland.
However, the material—the book written by Jessie Nelson, music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles—is not just another feel-good musical with a predictable plot.
Its various romances do not necessarily have a happily-ever-after end.
But genuine lasting joy is possible, even for the three women who think they might have been stuck in limbo. Jenna (Joanna Ampil), Becky (Bituin Escalante) and Dawn (Maronne Cruz) fear they might spend the rest of their lives waiting on tables in the small diner owned by the cantankerous Joe (Steven Conde).
The first two waitresses are grappling with unfulfilling marriages, while the third is too homely to find a date.
But Nelson’s book, with Bareilles’ moving libretto, subverts these stereotypes by releasing an undercurrent of humor and happiness in the characters’ interactions with each other.
The situation may seem grim and hopeless, especially the humiliation and insensitivity Jenna suffers in the hands of her unemployed redneck husband Earl (George Shulze). But the characters have too much wit in their minds and warmth in their hearts to just mope around.
The dialogue alternates between snappy and soulful, giving the characters a humanity the audience can empathize with.
While lesser performers could have limited themselves to black-and-white archetypes, here, each actor puts his individual stamp on the role.
The chemistry between the three waitresses makes their sisterhood believable, and that they would stick with each other through thick and thin.
Ampil’s Jenna is the glue whose love for life holds them together. Escalante’s earnest down-to-earth nature provides the balance to Dawn’s vulnerable, funny nerdiness.
The supporting characters who frequent the diner are given their moments to shine. Nino Alejandro’s Ogie brings the house down as Dawn’s geeky, amorous suitor. Even the ornery diner manager Cal (Dean Rosen) has more to him than just one who barks orders.
This odd band is a family whose unspoken dreams find their symbols in the assorted pies that Jenna bakes—each one’s uniqueness highlighting the emotional color of a particular scene, their collective sweetness diluting any bitterness that threatens to linger.
Perhaps that is why the resolution to the romance between Jenna and the married physician (Bibo Reyes) has a speedy and soft landing. Reyes plays the newbie in the rustic town with the requisite charm and coolness.
The characters’ optimism in their dark situations, and the way the actors and the director let this brightness shine through saves you from having a heavy feeling.
David Gallo’s production design, particularly its bright colors, offsets the grayness in the characters’ lives, the arc enclosing them in a protective haven.
Home is not only where the heart is, the heart also needs to recognize its own home if it is to be happy. —CONTRIBUTED
“Waitress” runs at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati City, until Dec. 2. Visit ticketworld.com.ph.