Book by Jessie Nelson
Music and Lyrics by Sara Bareilles (Based on the Motion Picture Written by Adrienne Shelly)
Directed by Diane Paulus
Reviewed by Michele Willens
Theatre Reviews Limited
You will be forgiven if you walk into the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and wonder if you have mistakenly ended up at the neighborhood diner. Yes, that is the aroma of warm cinnamon tickling your nose. And yes, it turns out to be a pretty apt metaphor for the show you are about to see. “Waitress,” after all, mostly takes place inside a small town eatery, where the main character not only serves customers, but also bakes daily concoctions with names like Blueberry Bacon, Get Out of the Mud Pie, and Pursuit of Happiness.
Not that the musical, with book by Jessie Nelson and music by Sara Bareilles, is necessarily your grandma’s apple pie. This one has just enough spice to make it feel simultaneously nostalgic and contemporary. There is, after all, an abusive husband, an unwanted pregnancy, multiple affairs, and an ultimate sense of female empowerment.
Let’s start with the women thing, as even the story behind the story matters. “Waitress” was originally a lovely indie film starring Keri Russell. It was written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, who was tragically murdered shortly before the movie was released in 2007. This adaptation has been years in the making, (Notice I did not say “baking”) though it really got going when Jessie Mueller left her Tony-winning role as Carole King to take on the lead here. That was seen by some as a risky move – how many movies have been successfully transferred to stage musicals, after all? (“Hairspray” comes to mind, but then?)
It turned out that Mueller’s instincts are as sharp as her talent. This one has been selling tickets from previews to opening and beyond, and Mueller has once again been nominated for the Tony. She won’t win this time, but she delivers an endearing and accomplished performance.
She is Jenna, a pie-making waitress unhappily married to the dangerous Earl, a thankless part bravely portrayed by Nick Cordero. The more memorable characters are Jenna’s co-workers, Dawn and Becky, played, respectively by Kimiko Glenn and Keala Settle. The actresses are funny and touching in what could easily have been cartoon types.
The love interest is the new doctor in town, who supervises Jenna’s pregnancy and falls immediately in lust. He is charmingly/goofily played by Drew Gehling. There is chemistry and physicality here that manages to be both frisky and humorous. (Who knew “it’s deep-dish non-stick” could sound sexy?) Their first encounter spurs the witty song “A Pretty Good Bad Idea.”
The show is in female hands: direction by Diane Paulus, choreography by Lorin Latarro, the spoken words by screenwriter Jessie Nelson, and music and lyrics by five-time Grammy nominated singer and songwriter Sara Bareilles. This is primarily a pop score, not the usual sounds of Broadway, which makes it a perfect fit for Mueller, coming out of the tapestry of Carole King. The songs are generally lovely and fitting, and I have to say my favorite is “Take It from An Old Man,” sung by the lovably-curmudgeonly owner of the diner.
As for the drama of the show, there isn’t much. We wait to see if Jenna will give birth, if she and the good doctor will leave their spouses and run off together, if Jenna will enter and win a pie making contest, and so on. This is not a challenging night at the theatre but neither does it match the sugary stuff filling Jenna’s goodies. The audiences are, pardon the expression, eating it up. As you are encouraged to do, by the way, with a nightly choice of three freshly made tarts. I went with the Key Lime and felt perfectly satisfied. Which is pretty much how you are likely to feel after seeing “Waitress.”