BWW Review: The Seth Rudetsky Series: Jessie Mueller Stars as Herself
Monday, July 8, 2019, at Emerson Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 888-616-0271 or www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com
One of the most highly-anticipated theater events in the summer of 2015 was the world premiere of Waitress at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, with good reason. Fresh from her Tony Award-winning performance as Carole King in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Jessie Mueller originated the lead role of Jenna, a woman in a troubled marriage who found solace and fulfillment by creating exquisite pies and connecting with her co-workers and regular customers at the local diner. Under the direction of Diane Paulus, Mueller inhabited the character and injected her soul into the hearts and minds of the audience on the moving strains of Sara Bareilles' singular score. When the show transferred to Broadway, Mueller earned her third Tony nomination in five years.
On Monday night, the Emerson Colonial Theatre presented The Seth Rudetsky Series Starring Jessie Mueller, the first of three concerts with Cheyenne Jackson (October 4) and Kelli O'Hara (January 9) to follow. The host of Sirius SM's On Broadway channel, Rudetsky is a pianist, a music director, and possesses a vast knowledge of musical theater. In this series, a combination of conversation and musical performances, Rudetsky moves seamlessly between his dual roles as onstage accompanist and interviewer, starting out on the piano bench and ambling over to a quasi-living room ("we have a carpet") with a pair of comfy armchairs. His task is to paint a portrait of the artist as a person, letting the audience in on the chronology of her career and some backstage bits, while maintaining a light, good-natured vibe.
Mueller presents as warm, genuine, and occasionally self-deprecating during the interview portions of the show. Occasionally, these segments are overlong, and the rapidity of Rudetsky's banter makes it difficult to discern what he says. However, all is forgotten when he lets his fingers do the talking on the 88s and Mueller takes center stage to share her incredible vocal gifts. She began her career in the fertile theater community of Chicago, having grown up in Evanston, Illinois, and showed off her belt with a fun rendition of "Shy" (Once Upon a Mattress), just one example of her not too shabby comedic skills. When she felt she was ready, Mueller found her way to the Big Apple where she made her Broadway debut and garnered her first Tony nom in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (2011).
Singing a broad range of selections, both Broadway and pop, Mueller proves herself to be a vocal chameleon. She channels King, opening with the throaty, earthy (no pun intended) "I Feel the Earth Move," turns mellow with a lovely, wispy cover of "Both Sides Now" (Joni Mitchell), and even scats in a delightful jazzed-up version of "It Might As Well Be Spring," the latter a tune she once used as an audition number. Altering her style on a dime, she slips into her soprano head voice to portray Marian Paroo ("My White Knight") from the Kennedy Center's 2019 semi-staged concert production of The Music Man, and later delivers a full-throated, but sweet, take on "If I Loved You" from the 2018 revival of Carousel.
Sublime as all of these diverse selections are, the pièces (pies?) de resistance are the quintet of songs from Waitress and Beautiful that bring out Mueller's best in terms of playing the character and giving her voice. From the former, "What Baking Can Do" serves as a tasty amuse bouche to "She Used to Be Mine," the heart-rending 11 o'clock number that capsulizes Jenna's story, and Mueller's incredibly raw and primal performance of it spurred a standing ovation. On the heels of that, a little audience sing-along on "What the World Needs Now Is Love" lifted the spirits and the communal voices, providing a good segue into closing with the familiar King songs, "Beautiful" and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman."
For those who know Mueller only from one or two shows, the concert was a great opportunity to experience her broad vocal range and the assortment of roles she's played. However, she is also an activist who is involved with various causes with the Broadway community. In 2016, Rudetsky and his husband, James Wesley, organized a response to the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, recruiting numerous performers, Mueller among them, to record "What the World Needs Now" to support the LGBT community of Central Florida. Later that year, Mueller, Rudetsky, and Wesley created the idea for Concert for America, a series of concerts supporting various social justice organizations. Get ready for the next revelation this fall when Mueller stars with Megan Hilty in the Lifetime movie, "Patsy and Loretta," and get your tickets for the future dates of the Rudetsky series.
Photo credit: Jacqueline Harris for The Interval (Jessie Mueller)