Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by WaistWatchers the Musical.
From the Atkins and South Beach diets to WeightWatchers and NutriSystem, tens of millions of American women follow diet and exercise plans each year in the hope of losing those excess pounds that make them feel less than beautiful. Matt Silva’s touring production of WaistWatchers the Musical, now at the Royal George Theatre, is 90 minutes of parody songs, personal dramas, and hilarious visuals that might not exactly be Shakespeare but certainly is thoroughly entertaining, especially for the women. (Caveat: if you're a man, you are not really in this show's target audience.)
Each character is carefully defined to represent a type. Kiley L. McDonald sparkles as Carla, the instructor, a woman with a deep love of chocolate who works out to keep in shape for various sexual encounters. Sarah Godwin is Cindy, a recently divorced woman trying to get back into the dating world. Krissy Johnson is Cheryl, a 40-ish woman undergoing a critical midlife crisis. She’s been married long enough that her husband’s suddenly-renewed sex drive is driving her crazy. And the brilliant Martha Wash is Connie, a first-timer at the gym who just wants to get her husband to pay more attention to her. There is also an MC (the effervescent Katherine S. Barnes) who plays multiple characters, such as a chef pushing a giant buffet and a Viagra pill. (You read that right: costume designer Jill Rose Keys has a great time with this show.)
These actresses, especially Wash, whose triumphant “Fat & Okay” is the play’s most powerful moment, possess wonderful voices and have a delightful time with all of the subtle (and overt) sexual innuendo in the lyrics. (What they do with four giant exercise balls is one of Silva’s more fun inventions.) Johnson, with her wonderful facial expressions and comically exaggerated anguish in songs like “Getting Older,” is a joy to watch. And don’t let yourself focus solely on whoever is singing: the others in the background are often the greatest humor of the songs. Choreographer Dani Tucci-Juraga (a fitness trainer in her free time) puts them through the paces: it’s easy to suspect that some of their reactions are completely real.
Silva’s production is tight and simple, playing out in a small women’s workout gym (designed by Joe Schermoly) that bleeds right into audience. Alan Jacobsen’s fun script features song parodies with such names as “Botox Queen,” “Eat It,” “Sounds of Snoring,” and “Oops” that composer Vince Dimura has rewritten to obscure the original music. (This reviewer found that technique, albeit clever, a bit distracting; spending too much time trying to figure out what song, from Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious” to “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, was being parodied can pull one out of the moment.)
Diets and fitness are Big Business in America right now, and they are indeed rife with parody possibilities. WaistWatchers the Musical (named perhaps so that no one would confuse it with a real diet movement?) is a fun, frothy look at an industry that has grown to mega-dimensions (over a trillion dollars in 2017). It’s not anti-fitness; though one song extols the virtue of the “Just eat what you want because it doesn’t matter diet,” the fun it pokes is gentle and not a polemic. However, with its final number, “Hot Mamas,” the musical makes the point that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Audience members who have been drinking and having fun will appreciate that. There’s enough in this play for those who go to gyms and those who don’t. Just don’t expect miracles and deep insights: like diets themselves, this show isn’t likely to stay with you for a long time.
WaistWatchers the Musical is now playing at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St, Chicago until Dec 30. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.