It's easy as pie to fall for "Waitress," a sweet comic musical returning Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller ("Beautiful") to Broadway. Pop singer Sara Bareilles works a recurring chorus of those three ingredients, above, into many of the softly textured songs here, holding out the promise of scrumptious things to come.
WAITRESS Broadway Reviews
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The third item in Sara Bareilles' score is what might be Broadway's first song about an e.p.t.; that is, an early pregnancy test. This suggests, early on, that this new musical-with score, book, direction and choreography by a quartet of women-is going to offer a somewhat different take on things. Which wouldn't matter if the results were subpar; but they are above-par, considerably so. The key statement is not that Waitress is a musical from a team of women, but that Waitress is a good musical from a creative team who happen to be women. (Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's Fun Home-with one of Broadway's finest scores of the last quarter century-has already established the fact that gender has nothing to do with musical theatre excellence.)
"Sugar," "butter" and "flour" are the first words we hear in the new Broadway musicalWaitress (* * * ½ out of four) - simple ingredients that can produce scrumptious, and healing, results. That's certainly the case with this delightful adaptation of Adrienne Shelly's 2007 film, which followed a small-town gal trapped in an unhappy marriage but blessed with a prodigious talent for making pies. Arriving in a season that has brought Hamilton and now the majestically unsettling American Psycho, the new musical may initially strike you as - pardon the inescapable food metaphors - a modest confection.
Ms. Mueller, who won a Tony for her performance in "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical," possesses a rich, soulful and emotionally translucent voice, and an ability to bring heaping cupfuls of subtext to her acting. But as with the unremarkable jukebox musical that brought her Broadway stardom, Ms. Mueller's talent often outstrips the material she's given here. So, incidentally, do the gifts of her supporting cast, who provide brightly colored, vibrantly sung performances....Much of the score, by the pop singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, is appealing, drawing on the sounds of country music reflecting the Southern setting, but also containing more traditional Broadway-pop balladry. But the book by Jessie Nelson, based on the movie written and directed by (and co-starring) Adrienne Shelly, tends to flatten most of the characters into comic cartoons. (To be fair, they do not have much more depth in the movie, from which some of the musical's dialogue is borrowed.)
"Waitress" owes its sweetness to the mouth-watering goodness of Jessie Mueller. As a diner waitress named Jenna, Mueller is such a honey bun, she melts us like the mounds of butter that make Jenna's homemade pies so luscious. The musical resorts to comic overkill to create characters based on Adrienne Shelly's 2007 indie rom-com. But Sara Bareilles has written a charming score that suits the quirky material and Mueller's dazzling voice and endearing personality.
Based on the 2007 indie film by the late writer-director Adrienne Shelly, Waitress has been whipped (I'll stop now) into an expertly constructed and emotionally satisfying tale of self-liberation in the face of limited options. Jessie Nelson's broadly comic yet brooding book meshes wonderfully with a frisky, bright score by pop star Sara Bareilles, a seasoned songwriter who lets the Beatles and other Britpop influences shine through. Bareilles's custom-built earworms address workplace pluck ("Opening Up"), first-date jitters ("When He Sees Me"), quirky, obsessive love ("Never Ever Getting Rid of Me") and an eleventh-hour ballad of loss and regret ("She Used to Be Mine"), which will rip your heart out.
Mueller's is a performance stripped of condescension, lived in the moment and rich in musical pleasures; surely there is no singing actress of Mueller's generation better able to play a woman of low power and self-esteem....In this show she immediately moves her lips whenever Jenna is asked a question - signaling to the audience that Jenna's main problem is that she worries so much about pleasing others that she never has learned how to put her own needs first. Jenna eventually grabs such an opportunity with her comely-but-married gynecologist (played by Drew Gehling), and it is here that the show stutters: Gehling's Dr. Pomatter feels like a sitcom doc rather than a serious love interest for a serious young woman, and thus you don't pull for them as you should. I had the same issue with Nick Cordero's Earl (Jenna's husband), played as a standard-issue man-spreader when the show would be better if you saw deeper into his anger and depression - especially since Bareilles has given him "You Will Still Be Mine," one of the most poignant songs in the show.
Musicals commonly have a second-act problem. "Waitress" is one of the few that actually gets better as it goes along. Paulus' direction grows more supple, the quirks of the characters become more richly inhabited, the music travels to more poignant places and Mueller's performance just goes from strength to strength....Admittedly, the comic coincidences and plot conveniences don't stand the test of realism and the ending is sentimental in a non-rom-com way. But the show's heart is earned through the beauty and integrity of Mueller's work....In an era glutted with gifted musical theater performers, she stands out as a luminous everywoman.
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.
Mueller, who won the Tony Award for her portrayal of songwriter/singer Carole King in Beautiful, returns with another spectacular performance in the title role as Jenna, eking out a living in a roadside diner in the South where she has achieved local fame as a baker of transcendent pies named according to her state of mind, which ranges in any given day, hour, minute from whimsical to mordant....The positives far outnumber the negatives. Jenna is a heroine of the moment, taking control of her life and offering no apologies for her choices, even - or especially - the arguable ones. Mueller has a girl-next-door appeal that sublimates into something less earthbound when she sings, her pleasingly throbby mezzo a purring engine in ballads until she lets out the reins and the horsepower kicks in.
It's surprising that "Waitress's" director, the resourceful Diane Paulus, who staged recent Broadway revivals of "Hair" and "Pippin," would not have required the softening of at least one of Earl's monstrous edges, because he's a villain so transparently designed to provoke a specific response that - no disrespect to the highly competent, physically imposing Cordero - the character comes across as an inane contrivance. Some other supporting parts fare far, far better, as with an eccentric suitor for Dawn named Ogie, played to the wonderfully kooky hilt by Christopher Fitzgerald. The number late in Act 1 in which Ogie introduces himself to us, "Never Ever Getting Rid of Me," jump-starts the proceedings with its effervescent spirit (and suggests that it might be fun if Ogie and Dawn got a spinoff musical of their own).
But the best part of this show is Mueller as piemaker Jenna, who won a Tony Award for playing Carole King in the musical "Beautiful." She combines earthiness, sexiness, timidity and dreaminess and her voice overflows with emotion. Listening to her sing the heartbreaking "She Used to Be Mine" is surely one of the very best things on Broadway this season.
Sugar, butter, flour - there are plenty of those ingredients, particularly the sweet stuff, in the musical Waitress, which opened Sunday night at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre. They mix in a refrain heard throughout the production, as well as the elaborate pies the show's heroine crafts. And much like those desserts, Waitress is a sweet slice of a show that shines with the help of a star ingredient: Tony winner Jessie Mueller.
Waitress can still be an uncomfortable genre mix: domestic-violence drama and workplace rom-com. That's in the source material, and the musicalization exaggerates it. What I certainly didn't expect, though, is that the musicalization could also help to justify the mismatch. As the story rushed toward its multiple conclusions - a typical Broadway problem the creative team was unable to solve - I began to understand that for these characters, life itself is an uncomfortable genre mix. Seeing that and sharing it is the start of their mastering it. Perhaps it really did take an all-female creative team to understand how such a story could be true, and how it could sing. If so, well, hand me a slice of that humble pie.
...something odd happens to this pie-crust thin story when Jenna, the resolute heroine, becomes Jenny, the singing doormat. Diane Paulus's direction and Jessie Nelson's book never let us forget that Jenna is victim, first and foremost. And so was her loving mother, who appears as a ghost, baking pies when she isn't being beaten up by her own thug of a husband....The result of all this marital and on-the-job abuse is that the men's behavior, past and present, overwhelms the show. The first act is well on its way to breaking out the razor blades when a very supporting character, played by Christopher Fitzgerald, lifts the show and proceeds to steal it....Fitzgerald is one of those great Broadway character actors who also has the acting chops and charisma to carry a show, but rarely gets the opportunity. (He dazzled in the lead role in the Ahmanson Theater's production of "Minsky's," which sadly never made it to Broadway.)
The distinctions here include a rousing, comfort-food pop score by Sara Bareilles, the singer-songwriter in her confident Broadway composing debut, and the can't-miss casting of Jessie Mueller as Jenna. Mueller, whose down-to-earth authenticity as Carole King in "Beautiful" earned her a 2014 Tony, brings an unforced honesty and creamy, plaintive, intricately colored voice to a character who keeps things real when, all around her, things threaten to become showbiz pat.
The show's great, unintended irony is that her opportunity for success comes not from her resolve or ambition or even, really, her talent with pastry. It's because she was a friendly waitress, and her good nature was financially rewarded by a satisfied, wealthy, male customer.
The best thing to be said for "Waitress" is the brightly colored set design by Scott Pask, which features two giant, rotating pie cases on either side of the stage. Otherwise this musical feels like a few too many slices of a much too sugary pie. It sails right past feel-good and instead leaves you with a stomachache.
Under Diane Paulus' direction, the show at times seems to struggle to fill the stage. The book, written by Jessie Nelson and based on the film script, is nicely witty. But the choreography, by Lorin Latarro, seems an afterthought, and the songs, by the Grammy-winning artist Sara Bareilles, are tuneful, yet often strangely reticent, as though meant to be sung quietly to oneself rather than loudly before a crowd. Bad Idea, a duet between Jenna and Dr Pomatter, is a nicely rowdy exception, as is Jenna's heartfelt She Used to Be Mine. (One song for Ogie, Never Getting Rid of Me, is a showstopper; the other, I Love You Like a Table, a cheerful muddle.)
Director Diane Paulus ("Pippin") does a fine job guiding actors to lively performances. But her staging is heavy-handed. The pie metaphor is unobtrusive on film, but it's force-fed on stage. Musicals, like dough, get stiff when overworked. Still, the show strikes a chord, in large part thanks to Mueuller's sweet and touching performance. In this fairy tale the girl loses the guy - and good riddance. Everybody wins. So do audiences with Mueller onstage.