With Waitress, Sara Bareilles Makes a Stunning Broadway Bow and Jessie Mueller Dazzles Once Again – Theater Review
Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, April 24th, 2016
The new musical Waitress was a bit of a revelation when it played a tryout run last summer at the American Repertory Theater. Not because of the admittedly glorious Jessie Mueller, who has long since established herself as one of the most nuanced, sympathetic and all-around astonishing performers that musical theater currently has. And not because of visionary director Diane Paulus, although Paulus had quite a bit to make up for after the artistic wasteland that is Finding Neverland.
No, the real revelation is composer/lyricist Sara Bareilles, that rarest of birds, the pop artist who can actually create well-crafted, contextual musical-theater songs. (I’m talking to you, Elton John, Cyndi Lauper, Duncan Sheik, Phil Collins, Davie Stewart, Bono and The Edge, Dolly Parton, Edie Brickell, et al.) Instead of pop tunes artificially wedged into an unwilling narrative. in Waitress we get songs that actually sound like dialogue, emerging naturally from the drama at hand.
Waitress has now moved to Broadway, and word on the street had it that Paulus, Bareilles, and bookwriter Jessie Nelson had made considerable changes to the show since its run in Cambridge. Well, as strong as the show already was, these women have somehow found ways of making the show richer, smoother, and even more deeply affecting. The primary achievement of Waitress lies in taking these ordinary people and making them real. It’s a show that makes you shiver with recognition and tear up with empathy almost throughout the entire show.
The show centers around Jenna (Jessie Mueller), a hot mess of a waitress stuck in an abusive marriage. When Jenna finds herself pregnant, she turns to her coworkers Becky (Keala Settle) and Dawn (Kimiko Glenn) for support, but they have their own relationship troubles to contend with. Jenna ill-advisedly enters a romantic relationship with her OB/GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), and the plot unfolds from there. Jenna sublimates by creating a voluminous series of pies, featuring such creative flavor pairings as blueberry/bacon and chocolate passion fruit.
Many of the changes in the show since its tryout run have been in terms of staging and scene flow. Particularly charming are the added staged mini-fantasies, with chorus members swirling around Jenna with ingredients as she dreams up another pie.
One change that seemed ill-advised was the shift in location when Dr. Pomatter unexpectedly visits Jenna and persuades her to teach him how to bake a pie. This scene had a much more menacing undertone when it was set in Jenna’s home, as it was in Cambridge. Here, she’s at work, and although the scene itself is still charming, we lose the edge of wondering whether Jenna’s explosive husband, Earl, is going to walk in on the lovers.
As affecting as Bareilles’s songs are, they do reflect those two bugaboos that always seem to dog the pop-artist-turned-theater-artist: slant rhyme and faulty scansion. Admittedly, getting rhyme right and emphasizing the correct syllable don’t really seem to matter to writers of pop songs, but theater tends to be a bit more focused on craft. Still, the songs themselves are rich and moving, and none of them feels feels obligatory or forced, as often occurs when pop writers attempt musical theater.
Jessie Mueller once again reveals herself as one of the most appealing and versatile performers currently working. She invites you into her world with every gesture, every sigh. She’s an indisputable marvel, the master of the soulful look, the fleeting glance that’s pregnant — you should pardon the expression — with meaning. Her rendition of the 11 o’clock number, “She Used to Be Mine” is positively mesmerizing, a combination of Bareilles’s powerhouse of a song and Mueller’s raw, devastating rendition.
There have been some significant cast changes since the Cambridge run, but Keala Settle thankfully returns as Jenna’s coworker and friend, Becky. In fact, Settle feels even more confident here with the comedy and the pathos and it’s a sheer joy to watch her fully embody Becky’s bluster and vulnerability.
Joining the cast is Kimiko Glenn, making an indelible Broadway debut as Jenna’s other coworker, the shy and quirky Dawn. Glenn has been an up-and-coming star for a few years now, and has a delightfully off-beat persona and a laser-sharp singing voice. (Full Disclosure: Kimiko is one of my former students at The Boston Conservatory, but I always inform my students that when they leave the school, the gloves are off.)
Paulus and company seem to have felt that more Broadway ringers were necessary to put the show over in New York, and have thus brought in Tony nominees Christopher Fitzgerald and Nick Cordero to take over two of the male roles. Fitzgerald steals every scene he’s in, as is his general wont, as Dawn’s eccentric suitor, Ogie. He deftly delivers one of the night’s many showstoppers in “Never Getting Rid of Me,” Ogie’s suitably creepy but nonetheless charming and successful attempt to win Dawn’s hand.
As Jenna’s boorish husband, Nick Cordero didn’t seem much of an improvement over Joe Tippett, who played the role quite believably in Cambridge. Perhaps Cordero hasn’t really settled into the part yet, but there was an artificial quality to his embodiment of this insecure tough guy.
For my money, Waitress is a significantly better show than Hamilton, particularly in terms of rich characterization and emotional impact. It’s more than likely that Hamilton will sweep all of the awards this year, as it has already started to do. But Waitress has enjoyed a very strong start at the box office, if not quite matching Hamilton’s $80-million advance. Here’s hoping the Broadway season will be able to accommodate more than one blockbuster.
Waitress, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in an open run, direction by Diane Paulus, music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, book by Jessie Nelson, choreography by Lorin Latarro, set design by Scott Pask, costume design by Suttirat Larlarb, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, sound design by Jonathan Deans. With Jessie Mueller as Jenna, Drew Gehling as Dr. Pomatter, Nick Cordero as Earl, Kimiko Glenn as Dawn, Keala Settle as Becky, Dakin Matthews as Joe, Christopher Fitzgerald as Ogie, Eric Anderson as Cal, Charity Angél as Dawson, Claire Keane and McKenna Keane as Lulu, and with Thay Floyd, Henry Gottfried, Molly Hager, Aisha Jackson, Max Kumangai, Jeremy Morse, Ragan Pharris, Stephanie Torns, and Ryan Vasquez.
Cover photo: Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller, Kimiko Gleen in Waitress, Photo: Joan Marcus.
Christopher Caggiano writes frequently on theater and performance.
Read ZEALnyc contributing writer Bob Rizzo’s interview with Waitress choreographer, Lorin Latarro here.
ZEALnyc’s complete list of Spring 2016 Broadway lineup can be found here.