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How “Sugar, Butter, and Flour” Build Character

A Review of Waitress on Broadway

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The smell of pie fills the Brooks Atkinson theater as the smiling ushers take the patrons to their seats. The concessions workers sell “pies in a jar” for audience members to enjoy. Instead of the traditional curtain found in a theater, there is a giant pie on the cloth, complimented by rotating pie displays on both sides of the stage. This warm and inviting atmosphere creates the perfect environment to tell the story of Jenna.

Waitress, written by Sara Bareilles, tells the story of a woman named Jenna, who has suffered love and loss in her life. Her mother was in an abusive relationship and after she passed away Jenna found herself in a similar, unhappy marriage. Unlike most women, Jenna is incredibly unhappy to learn that she is pregnant and will soon become a mother. She confides in her closest friends at work and finds an escape in her baking. With the confectionery skills she learned from her mother at a young age, Jenna now works at a diner making a variety of delicious pies. The show follows an affair she has with her doctor and her attempt to win a pie-baking contest so she can move away from her abusive husband. The production is filled with entertaining numbers, beautiful ballads, and plenty of “sugar, butter, flour”. The most striking quality about the production, however, is the relationships between the characters. They all play a role in shaping Jenna into the person she is by the end of Act II, affecting her in both positive and negative ways.

“Mama it’s amazing what baking can do…”
Jenna would be nothing without her mother. Though she has no lines or songs during the show, we know her struggles in an abusive relationship and how she taught Jenna how to bake. She loved her daughter and spent time in the kitchen with her so they could both escape the harsh words and actions of her husband. Throughout the play, Jenna sporadically talks about her mother. She opens up over time about how much she misses her and how she wants to leave her husband so she does not have to raise her child in the same way she was raised. Jenna’s mother taught her the importance of kindness and the power of baking, and because of these lessons voice grows stronger and stronger as she breaks away from her husband.

“Some things never change…” 
Opening up the diner would not be as fun without her best friends and coworkers by her side. Becky and Dawn are both waitresses in the diner with Jenna and they support her through her unplanned pregnancy. Jenna plays an equal part in this relationship because she supports Becky and Dawn throughout the show. Dawn, a very timid woman, signs up for a dating website and experiences the stresses that come along with with a first date. Becky is married but her husband has several medical issues, meaning they all need to support one another. The three want the best for each other and their hilarious, heartwarming bond made the audience feel as if they were friends with the three waitresses.

“Don’t go loving that baby more than me.”
Much like her mother, Jenna finds herself in an unhappy marriage with a lazy, arrogant man named Earl. Though there was a time where the two were happy and she truly loved him, she receives harsh words, backhanded compliments, and strikes because he is unable to control his short temper. Earl, through a horrible husband, was an important part of Jenna’s life. He is the father of her child, but at the end of the show she gains courage and tells Earl to leave. She has grown from a scared and battered wife new an empowered single-mother.

“If pies were books, yours would be Shakespeare’s letters.”
Dr. Jim Palamar is Jenna’s gynecologist, who she meets when she firsts learns that she is pregnant. She is closed off at first because he is not Jenna’s usual doctor, but his nervous energy and charm eventually allow her to open up. Though the two married individuals have an affair and they both know their actions are wrong, they begin to trust and care for eachother. They do not end up together at the end of the show and instead, choose to part ways. This parting was bittersweet but nervous Jim felt calmed by Jenna and is enamoured by her confectionary talents. She feels truly cared for by him. One scene in particular demonstrates this kindness: Jim visits her in the diner while she is making a pie, and he wants to learn how to bake. He takes an interest in what she loves and while they are talking, she becomes emotional over her mother’s death and the love of baking that tied the mother and daughter together. Instead of talking through it or kissing her, Jim holds Jenna until she stops crying. She acknowledges this and appreciates that their connection was more than just a fling. He helped her know that a partner should lift the other up, rather than beat them down. She has a new self respect because of him and Dr. Palamar supports her decision to raise her daughter on her own.

“Take it from an old man”
Joe is the old man (or sometimes played by a woman) who owns the diner and sits in Jenna’s section everyday with his very specific order. He is blunt, crass, and unafraid to tell off even Earl. Joe is the first to guess that she is pregnant and he subtly gives advice to the young waitress without nagging or seeming overbearing. He cares for Jenna, even though he may not always convey it through words. Joe also leaves her the diner in his will, making it possible for her to achieve her dreams of running her own pie shop. Jenna seems to be the only waitress who has patience for Joe’s quick tongue, but this shows that she can see the best in people and have patience with even the crankiest old men. The two individuals truly love and care for each other; Joe wants her to have a happy life and Jenna knows that he is not as cranky as others make him out to be. 
​ 
“Little Lulu”
Jenna’s daughter is only seen in the last two songs of the show, and though her role is small, she truly shaped Jenna into a more confident and empowered woman. After giving birth and telling Earl that she will be filing for a divorce, Jenna sings, “Today is just a day like any other. But now I’m changed. I am a mother.” She was originally anxious and unenthused by her pregnancy, but these views changed drastically. She now owns the pie shop thanks to Joe and chose renamed it after her daughter, Lulu. She no longer lives an unhappy and fearful life, but a new life with the daughter who she loves more than anything.

These characters shaped her into the person seen at the end of Act II. She grew from a timid waitress to a brave mother. She worked through the difficult times with the help of her friends and a smart-mouth old man. She went from a battered woman with her ex-husband to a proud single-mom with her beautiful daughter. She experienced genuine love and friendship with a nervous, babbling doctor. Jenna imitated her mother’s strength and persevere through everything thrown at her. Waitress told the story of a woman who took all her struggles, baked them into a pie, and became a stronger woman because of it.

Originally published on 11/29/2018 on The Playbill Project.

 

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How “Sugar, Butter, and Flour” Build Character