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Jessie Mueller won a lead actress Tony Award two years ago playing the title role in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. So it’s fitting that her return to Broadway, with perhaps an even more transcendent performance, should be in Waitress, the thoroughly charming musical theater debut of composer-lyricist Sara Bareilles, a descendent from the same line of emotionally empowering singer-songwriters of which King is now a doyenne. “Sugar” is the first word in the show, and this adaptation of the 2007 indie film about a Deep South diner server who dreams of baking herself a better life doesn’t stint on sweetness. But that’s all to the good in a deep dish of feel-good feminist comfort food.
Rich in themes of mother-daughter legacies, female friendship forged in the workplace, emancipation from conjugal tyranny and the therapeutic powers of baking, the show was adapted by Bareilles and filmmaker Jessie Nelson, herself a former waitress, from the film of the same name that starred Keri Russell. The movie was written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, who was murdered less than three months before its premiere at Sundance, where it was acquired by Fox Searchlight and became a modest sleeper hit, grossing $21.2 million worldwide.
Echoing a weakness in the original screen source, director Diane Paulus and choreographer Lorin Latarro could be criticized for overplaying the whimsy — there’s so much going on in scene transitions, with ensemble members gliding around delivering pies, aprons and baking ingredients, that it all becomes a tad cutesy and distracting. But the material is anchored at every step by Bareilles’ melodious pop score and Mueller’s supremely natural performance as Jenna. While the stock characters that surround her may be familiar, they’re a winsome bunch played by sterling performers. As her fellow waitresses — feisty, sass-mouthed Becky and mousy, borderline-OCD Dawn — Keala Settle and Kimiko Glenn are treasures, the dynamic among the three of them revealing the material’s debt to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
From left: Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller and Kimiko Glenn
Jenna is a dab hand at concocting delicious original pies with elaborate names, a skill she learned from her late mother. And like her mother, who was married to an abusive drunk, Jenna is also miserable with her deadbeat louse of a husband, Earl (Nick Cordero), who treats her like his possession. Encouraged by Becky, she’s inching toward leaving him when she discovers she’s pregnant. Seemingly stuck, she finds romantic escape in nervous trysts with her gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), while pinning her hopes for a definitive break on the $20,000 prize money from a national pie bake-off.
Miniature pies are on sale from the merchandise vendors and the smell of fresh baked goods wafts through the theater, the same way the ethereal opening harmonies of Bareilles’ “Sugar, butter, flour” motif seem to float on air. That leads into an effective double-intro song, with “What’s Inside” melding gracefully into “Opening Up” as Scott Pask’s inviting set for Joe’s Pie Diner materializes under a pretty Southern sky. Vintage-style chrome-and-glass rotating pie cabinets flank the stage in a clever touch, and the six musicians on a raised platform look almost indistinguishable from the customers. It’s a lovely establishing sequence — both real-people folksy and vaguely magical — that sets the tone for the show.
Jenna’s habit of lifting inspiration for pie recipes from the good and the bad in her life is what binds the story together. But the musical also fortifies the arcs of her sidekicks. The camaraderie of the waitresses is etched beautifully in their dreamy song about the elusive nature of happiness, “A Soft Place to Land,” performed at the baking table amid airborne puffs of flour.
Paulus’ staging has impressive fluidity, but at times tends to push the broad comedy with a heavy, somewhat patronizing hand. And yet it’s tough to resist the inevitable turn of Becky’s adversarial rapport with rough-hewn Cal (Eric Anderson), the diner cook, as their sheepish mutual attraction surfaces. The same goes for the romantic awakening of nerdy Dawn, who has never had a boyfriend, until her online dating profile lures Ogie, an eccentric stalker who turns out to be her soul mate. Christopher Fitzgerald is a genuinely nutty scene-stealer in that role. Glenn (an Orange is the New Black regular) is hilarious and touching singing “When He Sees Me,” and while Settle’s big Broadway belt is an imperfect fit for the poppy attitude of Becky’s “I Didn’t Plan It,” the performer sells the unapologetic self-affirmation with gusto. A sight gag in which all three waitresses enjoy some afternoon delight gets a massive laugh.
Rounding out the supporting cast, Dakin Matthews is wonderfully crusty as diner owner Joe, a good ol’ boy with minimal tolerance for everyone except Jenna. Nothing about her slips by him, whether it’s her unhappy marriage, the pregnancy she’s trying to keep secret or the cause of her smudged lipstick. Their scenes together are quite poignant. Gehling has a more challenging task given that Dr. Pomatter is not so much a conventional romantic male lead as a vehicle on Jenna’s difficult road to liberation. But he’s an appealing performer, playfully navigating the magnetic force between the doc and Jenna in the rollicking, handclap-backed “Bad Idea,” and revealing the lightest, most heart-piercing of falsettos in “You Matter to Me.”
Drew Gehling and Jessie Mueller
There’s no doubt that Bareilles can write songs, as the catchy hooks in these numbers attest. The surprise is that while most of her own popular work has been intimately personal, she writes just as well when channeling the point of view of fictional characters. Even her comedy numbers are captivating, notably Ogie’s goofy declarations, “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” and “I Love You Like a Table,” terrific showcases for Fitzgerald at his antic best. The ballads are not Broadway-style songs in that they advance the plot, but they do something just as vital, which is to deepen our affection for the characters and our access to their inner lives.
That applies most of all to Jenna. Mueller is ideally matched to Bareilles’ lilting melodic flights with their supple key transitions. Her voice shifts effortlessly from a breathy whisper to a powerful surge of released feeling, all of it bathed in a signature warmth that makes her one of the most exciting discoveries to emerge on Broadway in recent years. She’s so damn good you start mentally casting her in classic musical roles while you’re watching.
Mueller’s version of the big second-act showstopper, “She Used to Be Mine,” is very different from Bareilles’ gorgeous recording of that impeccably crafted ballad, which calls for nothing more than a piano and a spotlight. In the show, it’s an anguished aria that comes at Jenna’s lowest point — pregnant and trapped, living hand to mouth in an ugly house with “a man who can’t love.” Mueller contextualizes the song as the shattering cri de coeur of every desperately lonely woman. It gives the show an almost unbearably moving climax, pointing to her strengths as an actor as much as her extraordinary vocal gifts. Even when the musical veers toward preciousness, Mueller’s performance grounds it in unimpeachable emotional authenticity.
Venue: Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York
Cast: Jessie Mueller, Keala Settle, Kimiko Glenn, Drew Gehling, Nick Cordero, Dakin Matthews, Eric Anderson, Christopher Fitzgerald, Charity Angel Dawson, Thay Floyd, Molly Hager, Aisha Jackson, Claire Keane, McKenna Keane, Jeremy Morse, Stephanie Torns, Ryan Vasquez
Director: Diane Paulus
Book: Jessie Nelson, based on the motion picture written by Adrienne Shelley
Music & lyrics: Sara Bareilles
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Suttirat Anne Larlarb
Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind
Sound designer: Jonathan Deans
Music director: Nadia DiGiallonardo
Orchestrations: Sara Bareilles & the Waitress Band
Choreographer: Lorin Latarro
Presented by Barry & Fran Weissler, Norton & Elaine Herrick, David I. Berley, Independent Presenters Network, A.C. Orange International, Peter May, Michael Roiff, Ken Schur, Marisa Sechrest, Jam Theatricals, 42nd.club/Square 1 Theatrics, Benjamin Simpson & Joseph Longthorne/Shira Friedman, American Repertory Theater
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