There are good reasons to savor Waitress, the sweet and tart new musical confection about love and pie, deliciously performed at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theater. Some of the reasons have nothing to do with what’s on stage.
It is being promoted as the first Broadway musical put together by an all-female creative team. In her Broadway debut, well-known singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles has written and orchestrated a score full of pleasing songs. Diane Paulus (Hair, Porgy and Bess) directs with her usual verve, but, in keeping with the material, more down-home and laid-back than usual, certainly compared to her most recent over-the-Big-Top Broadway forays (Pippin, Finding Neverland.) Jessie Nelson wrote the book, based on the 2007 film by Adrienne Shelly.
To accept this all-female claim, one would need to have a narrow enough definition of “creative team” to exclude the designers (the scenic, lighting, sound and one of the two wig designers are male), but in any case it is a welcome addition to this season of inclusion.
Another compelling reason for me to root for Waitress is Adrienne Shelly, who wrote, directed, designed and co-starred in the original film. A native New Yorker, Shelly kept an apartment in my neighborhood as an office. She was murdered there by an intruder for no discernible reason, shortly after she had finished her indie film – and shortly before it triumphed at the Sundance Film Festival and then in theatrical release.
The musical adaptation hews closely to Shelly’s film in both plot and tone, which is a mix of comic, romantic and dark – a homespun feminist fable spiced with a pinch of cartoon and a dash of the surreal.
Jessie Mueller portrays Jenna, a waitress at Joe’s Pie Diner located in “a small town off Highway 27,” which, judging from the accents, is somewhere in the deep-dish South. The diner serves 27 different varieties of pies, and Jenna makes them all, including a new daily special that she invents from scratch each day. It is clear that she is nothing less than an artist, using what’s happening in her life at any moment to guide her imagination in the creation of her widely-desired desserts. In Waitress, the characters are what they eat, but they also bake what they are feeling.
When Jenna finds out she’s pregnant, she cooks up what she calls “Betrayed By My Eggs Pie.” She doesn’t want a child with her husband Earl (Nick Cordero), a bully and a boor, somebody who peaked in high school. He whined so much about his dead-end job that he gets fired from it, and literally holds out his hand to collect Jenna’s tips. She was already saving up money surreptitiously in order to enter a pie contest, so that she could use the prize money to leave him.
Jenna doesn’t consider an abortion, but she’s not happy about having a baby, which she admits freely to her new ob-gyn, Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling) — with whom she impulsively starts having an affair. This leads to their terrific rocking duet, “Bad Idea” —
It’s a bad idea me and you
Let’s just keep kissing till we come to –
which delighted me so much that I bought the “bad idea” tee-shirt, on sale in the lobby during intermission (Maybe that’s why the song ends Act I.)
At the top of Act II, we see Jenna baking an “I Wanna Play Doctor With My Gynecologist Pie.” (“Vanilla custard. Drizzled with warm melted caramel. Nuts. Totally nuts” etc.)
Waitress is not just Jenna’s story, which is a good thing, because the cast also includes some of my favorite Broadway performers. As fellow waitress Becky, also in her own way seeking love, Keala Settle shows off her belting voice in the soulful solo “I Didn’t Plan It,” as she did in Hands on A Hardbody, and her comic chops, as she did as Madame Thénardier in Les Miz.
In Waitress, she gets the best cracks:
“Lady, you are really pushing my buttons today,” says Becky’s boss, Cal.
“Which one is mute?” Becky snaps.
Cal is portrayed by Eric Anderson, who starred in Soul Doctor, and has since done sturdy work in Rocky and The Last Ship.
Dakin Matthews, who stood out as Churchill in The Audience and the coach in Rocky, here plays the outwardly fussy, difficult but secretly darling owner of the diner, Joe, which he reveals in the lilting, lovely “Take It From an Old Man.”
While Nick Cordero’s Tony-nominated performance as the gangster in Bullets Over Broadway was spectacular and he shined afterward as Avenging Angelo in Brooklynite, he isn’t given much to play but heavy as Earl. Similarly, the writer and director deserve much of the hit for overdoing the nerdy-ness of the third waitress Dawn, as portrayed by Kimiko Glenn (“Orange is the New Black”), making her Broadway debut.
But her cartoonish characterization is forgiven, because it leads to the show-stopping performance by Christopher Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, who was a brilliant Boq in Wicked and an outstanding Og the Leprechaun in Finian’s Rainbow, here plays Ogie, Dawn’s equally nerdy suitor. He completely steals the show, with his clog-dancing, hilarious delivery of the honky tonk-tinged “Never Getting Rid of Me.”
Jessie Mueller, who originated the role of Carole King in Beautiful, demonstrates that her Tony-winning performance in that musical was no one-off (if anybody suspected such), and that stage stardom seems inevitable with her pure, feeling voice and empathetic acting.
It’s that essential ingredient in her performance that explains why the audience will surely be able to skip over any imperfections some of us might perceive in the musical: The lyrics, for example, won’t make Sondheim jealous; the plot is both implausible and yet fairly predictable (and lovers of the film should be warned that the ending has been altered a bit.)
But what Waitress leaves us with is the affection evident among the characters. It also offer little pies in a little mason jar pasted with the Waitress logo. I bought one of those too.
Waitress is on stage at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (256 West 47th Street, New York, N.Y., 10036, between Eighth and Broadway)
Waitress. Directed by Diane Paulus. Choreographed by Lorin Latarro. Scenic Design by Scott Pask. Costume Design by Suttirat Anne Larlarb; Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design by Jonathan Deans; Wig & Make-up Design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt and Jason Allen. Cast: Jessie Mueller (Jenna), Eric Anderson (Cal), Nick Cordero (Earl), Christopher Fitzgerald (Ogie), Drew Gehling(Dr. Pomatter), Kimiko Glenn (Dawn), Dakin Matthews (Joe), Tony Award Keala Settle (Becky), Charity Angél Dawson, Thay Floyd, Henry Gottfried, Molly Hager, Aisha Jackson, Max Kumangai, Jeremy Morse, Ragan Pharris, Stephanie Torns and Ryan Vasquez. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell