MANILA — Jenna, the central character in the musical “Waitress,” is known for ingeniously baking pies with ingredients that don’t seem to make sense together yet delightfully turn out into something wonderful.
There was no such surprise with this latest production of Atlantis Theatrical, which opened to a full house and a standing ovation last Friday, November 9. Even before the words “sugar, butter” were temptingly uttered in the opener "What's Inside," theatergoers were already salivating at the promise of a delicious treat.
With a cast led by the award-winning Joanna Ampil, a score by international pop superstar Sara Bareilles, and a story based on a much-loved indie movie, “Waitress” is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
And truly it is. This musical about what baking can do is much like upscaled comfort food like lobster mac and cheese, Wagyu burgers and duck-fat fries -- where prime ingredients are used to make all-time favorites more memorable.
The setting is a classic diner in small town America with lovable yet stock characters we’ve seen before in “Alice” and “Frankie and Johnny.” There’s the brassy waitress Becky and the nerdy Dawn, the cranky short-order cook, and the cantankerous old man who owns the Joe’s Pie Diner.
This traditional recipe was given the Sundance treatment and guided by the spirit of women empowerment in the 2007 film with Keri Russell as Jenna, a waitress and pie maker who turns to baking as her personal refuge from a loveless marriage and lonely existence. But when she finds herself pregnant, she pins her hopes on a pie-making contest as a way for her and her baby to escape their humdrum existence.
But for the stage adaptation, which bowed on Broadway in 2016, they added another winning ingredient to this homey yarn: Bareilles, who composed the show’s irresistible music. Her songs range from country tunes that fit the American south setting to doo-wop and sentimental ballads that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Spotify pop playlist or a Lilith Fair set list. Bareilles even had a stint as Jenna on Broadway, along with another popular singer-songwriter Jason Mraz as the charmer Dr. Pomatter.
For the local staging — the first production of “Waitress” outside the US, ahead of the West End and Australia — director Bobby Garcia also didn’t scrimp on the various components, whipping up a top-notch cast led by West End star Ampil as Jenna, and Bituin Escalante marking her return to Atlantis after 15 years as Becky (played on Broadway by Keala Settle, best known for singing the anthemic “This is Me” in “The Greatest Showman”).
Ampil, fresh from her award-winning movie turn in “Ang Larawan,” confidently takes on Bareilles’ tricky musical runs like those in “What Baking Can Do,” and stuns in the dramatic 11 o'clock number — and the musical’s most known song — “She Used to Mine.”
Escalante, meanwhile, makes the most of her solo “I Didn’t Plan It,” a defiant number that opens Act 2 and sets the tone for the painful roller-coaster of emotions in the second half — in contrast to the mostly comedic Act 1.
“Waitress” actually starts off as a light, quirky comedy as we are introduced to the familiar characters, with fun musical numbers like “The Negative” (about a pregnancy test), Dawn’s paranoid solo about dating (“When He Sees Me”), and the show-stopping country hoedown “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” performed by a scene-stealing Nino Alejandro as Dawn’s even nerdier suitor. Act 1 ends with the jaunty “Bad Idea,” with Jenna awkwardly and impulsively jumping into an affair with her doctor.
But Bareilles never allows the comedy to consume the inherent drama of Jenna’s journey, with touching little ballads that remind us of their lot in life. In particular, the wistful “A Soft Place to Land” features tight three-part harmonies from the three waitresses that tunefully suggests their closeness and common dream of a better life.
Director Garcia too nicely balances the light and the dark, the humor and the pain, resulting in a musical that still has that indie spirit and, more importantly, feels painfully real.
Set designer David Gallo created a vintage diner in the middle of nowhere also as realistically as possible, using a revolving stage that efficiently brings the characters into its various areas, like the kitchen and even the toilet.
While the characters may not be all that original, the actors gave them enough nuances and layers to keep audiences invested. Most are at best, as one character admits, “happy enough” and this makes us feel for them.
Escalante, for instance, allows the audience to see through Becky’s sassy exterior with her sad eyes, while Maronne Cruz’s Dawn isn’t just a history nerd but a kind yet insecure introvert.
Even George Schulz as Earl, Jenna’s husband, isn’t an all-out redneck monster. He also provides just enough hints of a darker, dangerous side without turning Jenna’s story into a domestic abuse drama, which would have totally altered the show’s overall taste.
But the appeal of “Waitress” truly lies in Bareilles’ lovely compositions.
The duet “You Matter to Me” is a tugging romantic ballad that would melt hearts, the kind of number that is best enjoyed cuddled up with a loved one and surrounded with lighters up in the air — or a wedding. And Bibo Reyes, more than providing an appealingly awkward charm as Dr. Pomatter, sings it with a soothing quality with a light dreamy falsetto that blends well with Ampil’s lovely restraint.
Then there’s the moving “She Used to Be Mine,” as Jenna dramatically reflects on her life. It’s not the usual bombastic Broadway solo with its more confessional tone and folksy singer-songwriter sensibility. Ampil tearfully serves this song, fully embracing its pain, and turning it into the emotional highlight of the show that will be remembered long after curtain call.
This also made the penultimate number “Everything Changes,” an affirmation on motherhood, quietly uplifting.
With its moving music, on-point performances and relatable emotions, “Waitress” offers a truly sumptuous time at the theater — and makes you want to come back for seconds.
"Waitress" runs until December 2 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati.