Waitress continues at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
How many songs can one write about pies, making them, eating them, seeing them as a metaphor for life and love?
That was undoubtedly the challenge facing singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles when she sat down to create the music and lyrics for Waitress, the new Broadway musical, whose title character has a singular talent for baking extraordinarily succulent pies.
The news is that Bareilles has met the challenge handily, turning out some five songs that are consumed by or touch on the matter of pies. They add up to almost a third of her tasty score, which mixes funky pop rhythms with soulful ballads and is one of the main attractions of this problematic piece.
In addition to the full pie songs, there is the musical incantation “sugar, butter, flour”, which is repeated with mystical reverence throughout the proceedings, and there are times indeed when the show threatens to become too sweet for its own good, even as it depicts its heroine’s travails.
Despite her talent for pies, Jenna, portrayed with irresistible heart and soul by Jessie Mueller, is in pretty bad straits. She works long hours in a diner in one of those small Southern towns which seem to offer no escape on the neighbouring highway marked by the familiar row of telephone poles receding into the distance. (Such poles are a signature of these forlorn American towns, and they’re here, to be sure, on the main backdrop of Scott Pask’s evocative set design.)
Not only does Jenna report to work early to bake her pies, which are the diner’s main attractions, she also serves tables, turning over her tip money to her brutish, controlling husband, Earl.
Jenna has fallen out of love with Earl long ago, but now she is pregnant with his child. It’s a child she does not want, but she is determined to give birth. And to top things off, sexual chemistry, perhaps love, has been ignited between Jenna and her gynecologist, Dr Pomatter, who has only recently come to town and is also married.
Despite all this, it’s hopefully not a spoiler to tell you that things eventually turn out rather well for Jenna.
With its final curtain, Waitress can claim the nomenclature of a ‘feel-good musical’, even though the ambience feels a little ersatz.
Featuring a book by Jessie Nelson based on the well-received 2007 indie film written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelley, the show is an uneasy recipe of homespun grit and happy-go-lucky musical comedy conventions, obvious in its unconvincing sunshiny conclusion and most notably in the comic characters that surround Jenna in the diner.
They’re almost a parade of constructs that have grown not only overly familiar but tired as well, not only through musicals but through generations of laugh-tracked television sitcoms.
They include Jenna’s waitress colleagues, the endlessly smart-mouthed Becky (Keala Settle) and the giddy Dawn (Kimiko Glenn); the peculiar (poetry-writing, Irish-step dancing) tax accountant Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald), who becomes Dawn’s beau; the gruff, ever-insulting diner manager, Cal (Eric Anderson), and the crusty old guy, Joe (Dakin Matthews), who owns the diner.
They’re all endowed with top-notch Broadway-standard performances and each of them, except for Cal, is given at least one big character number, allowing the performers to show off their own indelible stuff. But the script – even with the many deft touches of director Diane Paulus – fails to really bring them to life, and they occasionally seem more like clutter than comedy relief.
Oddly enough for a show that boasts an all-female creative team, two of the most compelling characters are men: the husband Earl and the gynecologist Pomatter.
Earl’s loutishness seems almost infinite, but then he is given a scene where he breaks down, afraid that Jenna plans to leave him, and he reveals his own insecurities and his need for her. Played to the hilt by Nick Cordero, it’s deeply and surprisingly moving, despite the character’s basic villainy.
At the other end of the likeability scale is Drew Gehling’s Pomatter. With his wonderfully portrayed unsureness in his new surroundings and his daffy light-headedness in his passion for Jenna and her pies, he registers as an extremely winning innocent, but he eventually lets us see an underlying strength and an enviable amount of backbone.
Still, the show finds its greatest strength in the forthright performance of Mueller. Bereft of any glamorous accoutrements, her work is especially vibrant, making transparent every turn in Jesse’s psyche, from her ethereal joy in simply massaging dough to the ambivalence about her pregnancy and the depths of her despair in her unhappiness with her marriage. And she brings a vocal luster and emotional depth to Bareilles’ often meandering but graceful melody lines, accompanied by an unobtrusive but lively onstage six-piece band.
Mueller comes to Waitress fresh from her Tony Award-winning stance in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and Waitress seems to have been cooked up as a menu special to provide the performer with a chance for another slice of Tony.
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