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With A.R.T.'s 'Waitress,' Diane Paulus Whips Up A Musical As Sharp As It Is Sweet

Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller and Jeanna de Waal in the American Repertory Theater's production of "Waitress." (Evgenia Eliseeva/American Repertory Theater)closemore
Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller and Jeanna de Waal in the American Repertory Theater's production of "Waitress." (Evgenia Eliseeva/American Repertory Theater)

What’s not to like? Sex, sass, sisterhood and pie: “Waitress,” the new musical being birthed by American Repertory Theater (at the Loeb Drama Center through Sept. 27), has it all. Well, maybe not all.

Given the fluted crust of a proscenium arch and the steady march of evocative pastry, a little slice of something sweet for the audience would be nice. (I am reminded of a long-ago production of “Hansel and Gretel” in which the youngest spectators were invited onstage to pull a hunk of gingerbread off the witch’s real estate. Now, that was talking.)

Built on the 2007 Adrienne Shelly film of the same name, “Waitress,” masterminded (or maybe that should be master-hearted) by A.R.T. artistic director Diane Paulus and headed for Broadway next spring, is less a food-industry worker’s story than a beaten-down if creative young woman’s — with, you might say, an unorthodox attitude toward motherhood as the ultimate female fulfillment (though it reneges on that in the end).

Jessie Mueller in the American Repertory Theater's production of the 2007 film, "Waitress." (Jeremy Daniel/American Repertory Theater)
Jessie Mueller in the American Repertory Theater's production of the 2007 film, "Waitress." (Jeremy Daniel/American Repertory Theater)

Adhering closely to the film but replacing its droll interspersing of offbeat pop and classical bursts with an original score, “Waitress” is the singing, dancing equivalent of chick lit. Smartly then, Paulus has matched it to a mostly female creative team, the cleverest choice being that of Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles as composer/lyricist. Bareilles has never before undertaken a musical, but her pulsing, piano-driven tunes and sincere, ringing ballads both carry the story and set the now quirky, now aching mood. (One cavil: There are too many sentimental numbers in the second act.)

Most importantly, the songs keep things moving as fast as Scott Pask’s ingenious scenery, which whisks in and out of the principle diner locale against a backdrop of highway and power lines stretching into the distance. The fast pace is probably for the best, since the story is essentially one of a miserably married woman whose unlikely affair with her gynecologist hoists her firmly enough into the stirrups that she can ride her own life into the sunset. I mean, is that every horrible husband’s nightmare, or what?

Drew Gehling and Jessie Mueller in the American Repertory Theaer's "Waitress." (Evgenia Eliseeva/American Repertory Theater)
Drew Gehling and Jessie Mueller in the American Repertory Theaer's "Waitress." (Evgenia Eliseeva/American Repertory Theater)

Of course, “Waitress,” with its beauty-and-the-beast set-up and yearning roster of pies, is more fable than docudrama. Jenna, the title character, is a soulful young woman trapped in a fearful union with Earl, a bullying cretin who, in his more sympathetic moments, rises to the pathetic. She channels her thwarted dreams into the pies she invents daily for the diner where she works with tray-toting lifelines Becky, a take-no-nonsense soul whose own husband is ill and old but decent, and Dawn, a bespectacled wallflower and (in the musical) history buff. Also on the team are blustering cook/manager Cal and the diner’s dyspeptic owner, Joe, who has a soft spot for Jenna and a taste bud for her apparently ethereal pies.

When Jenna finds herself pregnant near the top of the show (a discovery made to a lively “pee-on-a-stick” number in which the three friends vie to “focus on The Negative”), she is inspired to such culinary creations as “Bad Baby Pie” and “My Husband is a Walrus Dicktard Pie.” Clearly she needs to make like the proverbial blackbird, break out of the pastry and fly. The rest of the show, amid smart-mouthed table-bussing and frenzied copulation, tells how she does so, charting a musical course that jumps from Bareilles’ wailed elegy for misplaced self, “She Used to Be Mine,” to the arrival of sweet reproductive salvation.

Keala Settle as Becky in "Waitress. (Evgenia Eliseeva/American Repertory Theater)
Keala Settle as Becky in "Waitress. (Evgenia Eliseeva/American Repertory Theater)

The book, by playwright-screenwriter-film director Jessie Nelson, borrows much dialogue from the film but amps up the sex and zingers, particularly for Becky, here a deep-voiced fireplug/sparkplug in the person of Keala Settle.

Curiously, despite all the tart ribaldry, “Waitress” retains an aura of whimsical innocence. More than once, as Jenna and her doc steamed up the exam room, I thought of Sandy Dumbrowski and Danny Zuko of “Grease” (with Settle’s Becky as Rizzo).

Moreover, Paulus’s A.R.T. production, backed by a seven-person combo led from the piano by Nadia DiGiallonardo, is as sharp as the pies are sweet. Following a baking reverie (with metronomic refrain repeated throughout the show) for Jenna, things start with a bang in “Opening Up,” where the percussive element is abetted by coffee cups slammed on diner tables and a brief behind-the-counter solo for Cal on pots and pans with flipped flapjack as flourish. This establishes the repetitiveness and valor of the operation and makes for a rhythmic, showy number enriched by Chase Brock’s bopping choreography. (But whether the fault lay in the stars or in the sound system, the lyrics toward the beginning of the show were a bit muddy on opening night. By contrast, I heard every poignant word of the second act.)

Paulus has also put together a pretty terrific company anchored by 2014 Tony winner (for “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”) Jessie Mueller as a fatalistic Jenna who at first seems more likely to bust out of her snug uniform than out of her life. Dreamy but feisty, Mueller’s Jenna brings a particularly pretty sound to her second-act solos. As her inamorato with speculum, Dr. Pomatter, Drew Gehling nicely balances tenderness with a fumbling doofy-ness. The mean, almost comically obtuse role of Earl falls to a coiled Joe Tippett, who fills it frighteningly well. But the musical’s attempt to humanize this bully via his backward-looking duet with Jenna, “You Will Still Be Mine,” is unsuccessful.

Joe Tippett and Jessie Mueller in the American Repertory Theater's production of "Waitress." (Evgenia Eliseeva/American Repertory Theater)
Joe Tippett and Jessie Mueller in the American Repertory Theater's production of "Waitress." (Evgenia Eliseeva/American Repertory Theater)

As both performers and besties, Settle and Jeanna de Waal offer able support in the roles of Becky and Dawn, the former a round, rumbling force of nature, the latter a wistful obsessive uncannily reminiscent of filmmaker Shelly’s character in the film (an homage, I think). Mueller, Settle and de Waal serve up some lovely harmonies too, particularly on “A Soft Place to Land.” Also well cast are Eric Anderson as barking cook Cal, whose philosophy is to take what he can get and appreciate it, and Dakin Matthews as Jenna’s shrewd, cranky fairy godfather, Joe. As Dawn’s sublimely persistent and ridiculous suitor Ogie, lithe Jeremy Morse jumps both booth and bandstand in pursuit of love on the zippy, patter-esque “Never Getting Rid of Me.”

“Waitress,” which has been in development for two years, has acquired a tuneful sheen without thus far losing the film’s delicate feminist heart. The show proves once again Paulus’s knack for transformation, whether she’s turning the lackluster “Pippin” into a circus or the wistful “Finding Neverland” into an unlikely musical. Obviously, the commercial producers Fran and Barry Weissler, who brought the “Waitress” project to Paulus, agree: They had signed the show up for Broadway before its A.R.T. debut. Let’s hope that between now and spring, this saucy new “Waitress” doesn’t get too big and butter-slick to fit into its slightly flaky crust.

Carolyn Clay was for many years the theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix. She is a past winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.

Related:

Carolyn Clay Theater Critic, The ARTery
Carolyn Clay, a theater critic for The ARTery, was for many years theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix.

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