Misha Berson

 

“Waitress” serves another slice of wholesome feminist pie

The hit Broadway musical -- visiting Portland this week -- adds to a pop-culture tradition of shows about making your way in the world table by table.

“You want fries with that?’

“More coffee?”

“Want to hear today’s specials?”

If you had a penny for every time those questions are uttered in American restaurants each day, you’d be rolling in dough.

And perhaps you’ve asked them yourself, as a member of the “waitstaff” of eateries modest or deluxe, fast food or haute cuisine. You’ve also heard them uttered in countless plays and films — because if there is any kind of laborer who has had staying power in popular culture it’s the waitress.  To quote Donna Summer, who played one in a music video: “She works hard for the money, so you better treat her right.”

The hit Broadway musical Waitress, which visits the Keller Auditorium on national tour from Sept. 18-23, treats its lead character right, all right.  It portrays a 30-ish woman who whips up whimsical, autobiographical pie creations (i.e., “Lonely Chicago Pie”) for the convivial Joe’s Pie Diner, where she also slings hash.  But there are tropes in the story that extend back to a bevy of other classic tales that center on women servers with pluck, sass and (often) a Cinderella ending.

Desi Oakley (from left), Charity Angel Dawson and Lenna Klingaman serve up the sass in “Waitress,” the Broadway hit on this week’s menu at the Keller Auditorium. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The musical (in a frisky staging by Diane Paulus) is only the latest manifestation of our fascination with the myths, the magic and the drudgery evoked by images of women waiting on tables. Based on the charming, same-titled 2007 movie by the late writer-director Adrienne Shelly,  and outfitted with a score of peppy, sugar-dusted tunes, fetching harmonies and soul-searching ballads by hit singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, the musical broadens and oversells the light comedy of its progenitor and serves up a happy ending as gooey-sweet as a slice of apple pie a la mode.

But it also adds a few pinches of feminist spice to an old story. And maybe there’s always been a feminist streak in the portrayal of women earning their daily bread by serving bread.

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The Great White SquarePants

The Great White Way? With the Tonys looming and "SpongeBob" and "Mean Girls" leading the pack, Broadway looks like Nostalgia Lane

NEW YORK – Staged with nonstop brio by Tina Landau, and adorned with a phantasmagorical set and Technicolor costumes, deliriously energetic performers and a peppy but largely forgettable pop music score by hitmakers ranging from Aerosmith to John Legend to Lady Antebellum, SpongeBob SquarePants is yet another lucrative Broadway show drawn from a pop-culture phenom in another medium. In this case, it’s a long-lived cartoon series on TV’s Nickelodeon network.

The show exemplifies one of two kinds of pop-culture nostalgia going head to head in a Broadway season that aims to keep its aging Baby Boomer audience happy – while luring their adult children and grandchildren in, too.

On one end of the generation spectrum you have some well-regarded revivals of golden-era Broadway shows many Boomers grew up watching with their parents, or at least hearing on the family hi-fi (back when record players weren’t especially hip, just ubiquitous). Those can be fond memories, triggered by the well-reviewed mountings of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel by director Jack O’Brien, Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady staged by Bartlett Sher, and Jerry Zak’s take on Hello, Dolly! (which actually opened last season, with Boomer favorite Bette Midler in the lead).

Also, for the lucky few who can score tickets, there’s nostalgia attached to aging rock legend Bruce Springsteen’s smash one-man show, and even some ‘70s glitter memory-dust sprinkled on the tepidly received jukebox disco-tuner, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.

The company in Broadway’s bright, splashy “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Photo © Joan Marcus

Throwback fare that appeals to their offspring, the Gen-Xers and Millennials is also well-represented by SpongeBob SquarePants and new movie makeovers of Mean Girls and Frozen. And the sole new hit drama on Broadway this season? Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a dramatization that’s a sequel to the wildly popular J.K. Rowling Harry Potter novels – especially beloved by droves of Millennials and their kids.

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