Music theater has a reputation for brassiness.
But there’s an entire sub genre of tender musicals quietly emerging — ones that aim for the heart.
Oh, they can include show-stopping numbers. And they need not be devoid of laughs. But their overall spirit is quieter.
“Once” and “The Band’s Visit,” two recent Tony-winning Best New Musicals, are prime examples. “Violet,” which Eclipse, the emerging artists program of Summer Stock Stage will be offering this summer, is a lesser known one, as is John Bucchino/Harvey Fierstein’s lovely “A Catered Affair,” which I still hope finds it’s way onto more stages.
I’d put the Steve Martin/Edie Brickell “Bright Star,” which the Phoenix Theatre had a hit with, in there as well.
And there’s the still-running-on-Broadway “Waitress,” which has stopped at the Murat Theatre on its national tour on its way to what I’m sure will be a long, long life in regional and community theater.
What’s the common denominators of all of these?
They aren’t about the privileged. They all allow for silences. They are sincere. They don’t overtly reference other musicals.
And each has a clear, beating heart.
The story of “Waitress” is simple. A woman in an abusive marriage gets pregnant, has an affair, and faces some tough choices. I won’t go further, although most of what happens is pretty predictable.
But predictability isn’t a deal breaker for a musical. If it was, “Phantom of the Opera” would have been a flop.
What matters is whether or not the audience cares about what happens to the people on stage. And whether what happens leaves them bored, overloaded, or in a blissful zone in between.
“Waitress,” as smartly balanced as five entrees on a serving tray, benefits by being a remarkably well-paced. The songs (by Sara Bareilles) are hit and miss, but the book, by Jessie Nelson, knows when to speed up and when to slow down.
Combined, the creative team know when to go for big laughs (allowing a secondary character to nearly stop the show with “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me”) and when to put it all out there for a grab-the-tissues number (the emotionally climactic “She Used to Be Mine”). Scenes may very in tone, but “Waitress” never strays from its core focus of the hope and regret of its universe of characters.
It certainly helps that the show arrived in Indy with Equity actors intact. Although not a star vehicle (the closest to a celeb in the pack is theater vet Richard Kline, best known for “Three’s Company”), the cast is universally strong, led by vocal powerhouse Christine Dwyer, walking her role’s requisite fine line between strength and weakness.
Ephie Aardema and Maiesha McQueen are immediately likable as her pals. Steven Good is the perhaps too-good-to-be-true dreamboat doctor. And Jeremy Morse, providing the aforementioned showstopper, plays a goofball who would be as comfortable in Mayberry as he is here. Kline, charming, plays the diner owner. And Ryan G. Dunkin is the lovable giant in the kitchen.
Be warned: The pie smell is prominent in the lobby. But the jars of pie (yes, jars of pie) are selling for a steep $10, providing the only moment of the evening where I felt cheated.