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BWW REVIEW: WAITRESS Tests Its Recipe for Success at A.R.T.

Book by Jessie Nelson; music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles; based on the motion picture written by Adrienne Shelly; director, Diane Paulus; choreographer, Chase Brock; music supervisor, Nadia DiGiallonardo; fight consultant, Thomas Schall; scenic design, Scott Pask; costume design, Suttirat Larlarb; lighting design, Kenneth Posner; sound design, Jonathan Deans; wig and makeup design, Rachel Padula Shufelt and Jason Allen; production stage manager, Thomas J. Gates

Cast in Order of Appearance:

Jenna, Jessie Mueller; Cal, Eric Anderson; Becky, Keala Settle; Dawn, Jeanna De Waal; Joe, Dakin Matthews; Earl, Joe Tippett; Dr. Pomatter, Drew Gehling; Ogie, Jeremy Morse; Lulu, Giana Ribeiro (alternating with Addison Oken); ensemble, Charity Angel Dawson, David Jennings, Corey Mach, Ragan Pharris, Cullen R. Titmas, Stephanie Torns

Performances and Tickets:

Now through September 27, American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, Mass.; tickets start at $25 and are available online at www.americanrepertorytheater.org or by calling the Box Office at 617-547-8300.

WAITRESS, the promising new musical adaptation of the 2007 indie rom-com that starred Kerri Russell and Nathan Fillion, may need a bit more shaking and baking before it's ready to contend for Broadway's Blue Ribbon. However, singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, screenwriter-turned-librettist Jessie Nelson, director Diane Paulus and star Jessie Mueller have stirred enough tasty ingredients into their bittersweet concoction to whet the audience's appetite for a second serving.

Already scheduled to begin previews at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theater in March 2016, WAITRESS combines quirky humor with a touching self-actualization story about a sweet young waitress who's trying to break free from her abusive and controlling husband. Pinning her hopes on winning the $25,000 prize in a national pie baking contest, Jenna (the exquisite Mueller) must deal with an unwanted pregnancy, a surprising affair with her dorky young (married) obstetrician, and her husband Earl's wrath on her way toward emancipation.

With no real outlet for her innermost thoughts and feelings, Jenna puts all of her passion into her pies. Her homemade daily specials are labors of love and works of art with ingredients that reflect her mood and names that express her frame of mind. Jenna's pies are the main attraction at Joe's Pie Diner "in a small town off Highway 27." Patrons come in for the comfort food but leave having been treated to a slice of life with their slice of pie.

Nelson's book for the musical adaptation of WAITRESS remains almost completely faithful to Adrienne Shelly's original screenplay, but Nelson, Bareilles and Paulus have added a dollop of extra poignancy by creating a haunting framing device that strengthens Jenna's backstory and illuminates her inner resolve. The clarion call of the musical phrase "sugar, butter, flour" becomes not only the mantra of Jenna's daily routine but also a ghostly voice from a happier past. With every pie she makes Jenna seems to be conjuring her mother's spirit, keeping her alive as not only her angel but her guide. This simple addition is a master stroke that grounds WAITRESS and Mueller's performance.

Mueller is a singing actress with a salt-of-the-Earth quality that works extremely well for this down-home story and country-fried score. She's completely natural whether shrinking from her overbearing husband (Joe Tippett) or falling for her doctor (Drew Gehling) misgivings be damned. She's tender with Joe, the crusty pie shop owner (Dakin Matthews), and funny with her co-workers, Becky (Keala Settle), Dawn (Jeanna De Waal) and Cal (Eric Anderson). Mueller is most affecting, though, when she segues from one-way conversations with her as yet unborn baby into deeply moving self-reflective songs. "She Used to Be Mine" is a tear-inducing pop-rock ballad in which Jenna yearns for the once happy and strong young woman she used to be. "Everything Changes" is a beautiful lullaby of birth and re-birth in which Jenna becomes mother and newborn at the same time.

On the whole Bareilles' score is very strong, her music deeply evocative and her lyrics smart and revealing. She's sassy in numbers like "The Negative" which comically mines the anxieties of taking a pregnancy test, but she can also be straightforwardly romantic as with the touching duets between Mueller and Gehling "It Only Takes a Taste" and "You Matter to Me." "You Will Still Be Mine" is a love gone wrong song in which Tippett manages to revere and threaten Mueller in one quietly terrifying breath. "Never Getting Rid of Me" is the flip side of romantic obsession where the smitten online dater Ogie (a delightfully geeky Jeremy Morse) refuses to take no for an answer from the dumbfounded wall flower Dawn (De Waal).

Bareilles' bluesy, folksy storytelling style is less of a fit when the score shifts toward traditional Broadway song and dance. "Opening Up" in which the ensemble starts its day at Joe's with a cup of coffee and a side of gossip doesn't really set the right tone for this ultimately intimate musical about love, loss and enlightenment. "I Love You like a Table" is also a bizarre declaration that turns Ogie's sweet wedding proposal to Dawn into an overblown production number. Part of the fault here lies with Chase Brock's overly caffeinated choreography. There's just too much of a contemporary urban feel to his movements and not enough rural Southern charm.

Charm is something that veteran actor Dakin Matthews as Joe has in spades. Cantankerous yet obviously fond of Jenna, he doles out direct but loving wisdom to his favorite waitress and pie savant. When he quietly sings "Take It from an Old Man," gently gliding her across the dance floor as if she were his daughter, WAITRESS is at its best. It's as if at that moment they are the only two people in the world, and it is a perfect melding of story, character, and song. The scene's power is all the more pure because of Paulus' simple yet elegant staging. A soft area spot encircles them in a bluish haze. The onstage band plays barely a whisper. Matthews's words become gospel and Mueller absorbs them like an attentive disciple.

The quieter moments are by far the most effective in WAITRESS, in part because that's when the band takes a back seat to the lyrics. Positioned on Scott Pask's retro 1950s-style set in an upstage alcove that looks like a private dining room separated from the main action by a bank of windows, the hard-driving country rock sound of the six amped up pieces - piano, drums, guitar, bass, cello and keyboard - often obscures the vocals. This is particularly true for the women, whose voices don't seem to be able to cut through the orchestrations as well as the men's. For some numbers the loss isn't as profound, but when Mueller's lyrics can't be heard it's devastating. One can only imagine how sublime it would be to hear Mueller articulate each and every word of Bareilles' heartfelt score. Perhaps if the band's volume weren't so high and Mueller's pop-country slides, scoops and riffs weren't so pronounced a better balance could be struck.

The entire cast of WAITRESS is uniformly strong, with Gehling a standout as Dr. Pomatter. His dry, goofy charms are very funny, and his sincere kindness is totally winning. He also has a fabulous voice, one that goes a long way toward melting the guarded heart of Mueller's hesitant Jenna. If their love affair seems implausible and all too sudden and reckless, that's a fault of the writing and not the performances.

Morse and De Waal make an adorable couple of misfits who find common ground in poetry and historical re-enactments. Settle is a powerhouse as Jenna's outspoken sidekick Becky, although at times she veers a bit too far into cartoonish overdrive, trampling on the heartache at the center of her marriage to an invalid. Anderson does nice work wielding his knives and juggling his spatulas as the short order cook who serves up a side of snarky common sense along with unexpected compassion. And Tippett manages to make his boorish beer-drinking bully Earl almost sympathetic when he genuinely seems to think that owning Jenna equates with love.

While talented, the ensemble of six is underutilized. Their two big song-and-dance numbers, "Opening Up" and "I Love You like a Table," seem designed primarily to give them something to do. "Waiting Room" fits better into the lattice work and tone of the show. It's a comic number that reflects Jenna's fears and fantasies while waiting for her first appointment with her ob-gyn.

For an out-of-town tryout, WAITRESS is on very solid ground. Some ingredients may need to be eliminated from this new musical's recipe, while others may need to be added to give it a bit more spice. On balance, there's a lot to like at Joe's Pie Diner. It will be interesting to see what's on the menu when it moves to the Great White Way.

PHOTOS BY EVGENIA ELISEEVA: Keala Settle as Becky, Jessie Mueller as Jenna and Jeanna De Waal as Dawn; Joe Tippett as Earl and Jessie Mueller; Jeremy Morse as Ogie and Jeanna De Waal; Dakin Matthews as Joe and Jessie Mueller; Drew Gehling as Dr. Pomatter and Jessie Mueller; Jessie Mueller


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