“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.

Part of the appeal of the iconic waitress figure is that many of us can relate to her daily toil. Currently there are 2.6 million laborers (men and women) who serve food in restaurants, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor Statistics.  It’s an easily obtained (though physically demanding, and unevenly rewarding) job that cuts across demographics. Servers range from small-town teens doing a summer stint at Denny’s, to seasoned professionals recommending fine wines in a posh urban boite. Waiting tables is also the favored employment of many in the arts, looking for flexible shifts to accommodate whatever show-biz gig turns up.

Waitress centers on Jenna, who lives in unspecified place and time in the South — which allows the story to incorporate Southern drawls, as well as modern touches (online dating) and retro ones (the archetypal, small-town diner where everybody knows your name).

“Waitress” is the story of how Jenna (Desi Oakley) earns independence, happiness and her own piece of the pie. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Like Joan Crawford in the glossy 1940s melodrama Mildred Pierce (a movie loosely based on a trenchant James Cain novel), Jenna works hard at the diner because she needs the dough to pay the bills in an unsatisfying (and in her case, physically abusive) marriage to an unemployed husband.

Like Ellen Burstyn’s character in the Martin Scorsese film, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (played later in Alice, the long-running TV sit-com spin-off, by Linda Lavin), and like Michelle Pfeiffer’s in the movie Frankie and Johnny (a light, loose adaptation of the Terrence McNally play, Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune),  Jenna is bolstered by the snappy camaraderie and support of her colorful co-workers, who constitute an alternative family. In the stage musical of Waitress, these boosters are other gal servers (a robust, wise-cracking black woman; a shy, kooky singleton) and a paunchy male cook who barks orders but has a heart of gold beating beneath his stained apron.

Sass is high on the menu here, as it often is for fictional waitresses on film – from the lovelorn teenage pizza servers in Mystic Pizza to the fed-up-to-here diner employee in a timeless cameo by Aretha Franklin in The Blues Brothers.

As  Scorsese’s Alice does for its heroine, Waitress places a scary, possessive man in Jenna’s life (her husband Earl, a childish and rage-filled deadbeat) but also a sweet, gentle suitor (Dr. Pomatter, her married doctor, with whom she has passionate trysts on his examining table).

There is also a Cinderella aspect to many a waitress tale, and in the musical that’s where the feminist message is most emphatic.

Jenna is broke and supporting her deadbeat husband  (she invents an I-Hate-My-Husband pie) and she’s unhappily pregnant by him.  Yet in the end, (spoiler alert) she suddenly escapes poverty with help from her crotchety old boss – who leaves her his diner when he dies. She also prospers, like Mildred Pierce, from her great baking prowess. And while Waitress has enough sexy sizzle to serve as a romantic comedy, Jenna calls it quits with both men in her life, the mean, pathetic spouse and the already-taken doc, right after she gives birth to a daughter.

It is baby Lulu who becomes the love of her life. All of her ambivalence and reluctance to become a parent evaporates, and no downer like post-partum depression threatens the ardor at first sight. Who needs a standard nuclear family or a male partner, when you have great co-workers, your own thriving business, and a beautiful kid – who you will teach to make pies, just like Jenna’s (also abused) mother taught her to do?

Single motherhood, once so frowned upon in our society, is wholesomely glorified (and over-romanticized) here as the ultimate self-fulfillment –  bringing to mind the pregnancy journey of Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel (another waitress!) in TV’s long-running sit-com Friends, and (with some Millennial caveats) in Lena Dunham’s sometime-barista character in Girls.

It would go too far to say Broadway’s Waitress is a rallying cry for waiting tables.  Or that its basic recipe for entertaining you is radically new or cliché-free. But the show’s success has a lot to do with how far we’ve come in baking female autonomy into the pop-cultural pie.

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