Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Waitress"

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note: entire contents copyright 2015 by Susan Daniels


"Waitress"

A Review by Susan Daniels

Akin to the 2007 independent film, “Waitress,” the new musical currently playing at the American Repertory Theater through September 27th, shares most of the essential ingredients of its cinematic predecessor.  A winning cast . . . guided by a skillful team of collaborators . . . relaying a captivating tale . . . to a responsive audience. As recipes go, it’s a theatrical treat, with several Tony winners and nominees involved in the production. 

Directed by ART’s Diane Paulus, it stars Jessie Mueller, last year’s multiple award winner, including the Tony, for “Beautiful,” who takes center stage as a diner waitress in a small town off Highway 27.  As Jenna, she’s married to Earl, a narcissistic, abusive, loser of a husband (Joe Tippett), who takes her tips and knocks her up after getting her drunk one night.

To offset her loveless marriage, despair about her unwanted child, and {as yet} unrealized dreams, Jenna pours herself into baking sensationally delectable pies with idiosyncratic names, such as “I Don’t Want to Have a Baby With Earl Pie” and Pregnant Miserable Self Pitying Loser Humble Pie.”  Besides serving up a tasty treat, the ritual of pie-making allows Jenna to work out her feelings while plotting a means of escape.

Supporting her quest is brassy Becky (Keala Settle), with the proverbial big heart of gold and a substantial singing voice to match, and Dawn (Jeanna De Waal), who adds an endearingly mousey counterpoint to these waitress/sisters-in-arms.

Like the movie, there’s Dr. Pomatter, Jenna’s obstetrician and love interest (Drew Gehling), Dawn’s quirky suitor, Ogie (Jeremy Morse in several scene-stealing schticks), the testy cook, Cal (Eric Anderson -- how I wish his role had more stage time), and the cantankerous with a slice of sly kindness diner owner, Joe (veteran character actor Dakin Matthews), whose song, “Take It From an Old Man,” provides one of the most poignant moments in the show.

Another touching number is Jenna’s heartbreaking solo, “She Used to Be Mine,” where it is abundantly apparent, via her beautiful voice, why Mueller is headlining the show.

With music and lyrics by Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles (“Brave,” “Love Song”), the show has an opportunity to appeal to a younger audience -- a strategic move.  Having a song in almost every scene sometimes becomes a disruptive force, however, preventing the plot from moving forward -- the most basic reason for a musical number.  “Waitress” would be better served with fewer songs and more character development.  

In her theatrical debut, Bareilles mixes the styles of musical theater and rock concert, blended in a variety of styles that, from time to time,  start to taste the same. It is performed by a lively seven-piece band, on view throughout the show and taking up about one-third of the stage.  Perhaps a nod to peopling the diner with more customers.

The weakest link in the show is the book by Jessie Nelson (films “Corrina, Corrina” and “I Am Sam”), faithfully following -- including many of the same lines -- Keri Russell’s gem of a screenplay.  Sadly, the translation from screen to stage gets bogged down with sitcom style narrative and abrupt plot devices.  Notably, giving birth and becoming a mother speedily resolve Jenna’s problems and insecurities, ensuring a recipe for happiness.  This feels contrived and, no doubt, will be one of the areas worked on before moving to Broadway next March.

"Waitress" (till 27 September)
AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATRE
@ Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE MA
1(617)547-8300

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