THE FINAL BON-BON: “Waitress”

Waitress is an odd duck. I saw the movie when it first opened, and I have a vague memory that I enjoyed it and that it made me hungry. The musical is even odder, though, because it takes the film’s identity as a comedy-drama and stretches the hybrid form into extreme shapes that sometimes made me feel uncomfortable. And so this musical, my last on the current New York junket, made for an odd dessert.

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The production’s chief asset by far is Jessie Mueller, who plays Jenna, the waitress whose magical gifts for pie-making do not extend to her personal life choices. She works at Joe’s Pie Diner in a small, unnamed Southern town, where the manager Cal (played at our performance by Max Kumangai, the dance captain) treats her and everyone else with ineffectual gruffness. I would think that, since the entire success of the diner rests on the imaginative pies that Jenna invents each morning to suit her mood (“Afternoon Delight Pie,” “Betrayed by My Eggs Pie,” and so on), Cal might be a little nicer to her. But men tend to be gruff with Jenna, including Joe, the diner’s owner (Dakin Matthews) who actually likes her a lot, and most especially her husband Earl (Nick Cordero), a bullying loser. Even the nice guy in Jenna’s life, her OB/GYN Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), manipulates her in order to get into her pie (and I mean that statement on all the levels you imagine it to mean).

Thus, the positive core of the story and the show rests with the female characters, who support each other through difficult work shifts and romantic misadventures. This focus on women’s friendship is the second chief asset of Waitress, and the two waitresses who work with Jenna at the diner are delightful. Keala Settle plays Becky, whose large size and sassy mouth tend to label her as a “type,” but whose streak of vulnerability and romantic longing (her husband suffers from seizures and wears a diaper) give her some depth.

The third waitress is Dawn who, in the film, was played by its writer-director Adrienne Shelly. The musical takes the character in a different direction, making her a quirky geek with a long list of odd interests who is looking, impossibly, for her soul mate. (The role, usually played by Kimiko Glenn from Orange is the New Black, was played by her understudy, Stephanie Torns, damn it! She was just fine, but I would have loved to see Glenn play this part.) Dawn ultimately finds true love, in the person of Ogie (again, an amazing “talked about all over town” performance by Christopher Fitzgerald . . . that I didn’t see. The understudy, Jeremy Morse, was great however.) Ogie is so laden down with oddnesses to match Dawn’s oddness that he has no room left to be a male ass, which makes him the only keeper in the story.

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So you have a tale of female empowerment, and we need more of these. The musical itself is a similar story, with a rare all-female production team: Diane Paulus (Pippin) directed, Lorin Lotarro choreographed, Jessie Nelson wrote the book, and the music and lyrics are by famed singer Sara Bareilles.

Bareilles is the third asset to the show, perhaps, to her fans, the first and only asset. To my mind, she is also something of a curse. The first chance people had of hearing the score to Waitress was in a concept album that Bareilles put out where she sang all the songs. She performed them in concert as well. Now we have a cast of women and men performing this score . . . and they all sound like Sara Bareilles. Not just the style of music, which would make sense. Everyone has a little yodel in his or her voice that creates a sameness to every song and creates an overarching moodiness. Bareilles can write a funny song as well, but that catch in everyone’s voice, including the men, started to distract me. I liked the score, and I have a feeling I will like it more when the cast recording arrives at my door and I can listen to its complexities. But it has a tendency to muss up the hybrid of comedy and drama, veering toward drama, in a way that left me feeling vaguely confused.

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The chief problem for me with the musical is Nelson’s book, which veers even more wildly in tone. In the film, Earl is played by Jeremy Sisto, who excels at playing attractive but troubled men. You can tell the first time you meet him what attracted Jenna to him, even as he bullies and abuses her. The musical version of Earl is viciously mean throughout, and his scenes with Jenna don’t mess around showing the way he threatens and abuses her. And since we see no moments of sweetness or even of sexual attractiveness, it is baffling that Jenna would stick with this guy, let alone get pregnant by him. (She claims he got her drunk, but after all these years it’s hard to see how Jenna would fall for that trick.) The upshot is that it makes Jenna a little harder for us to understand. How lucky that Jessie Mueller is so good at playing all of Jenna’s mindsets, but I can’t see this role being conquered by local actresses in community theaters around the nation or audiences sitting comfortably for two hours and fifteen minutes before Jenna gives Earl the heave-ho.

To make the wait more tolerable, Nelson writes comic scenes, which are very funny, particularly in the oddball love story of Dawn and Ogie. Jenna’s romance with Dr. Pomatter is often played for laughs, too, and the book throws in a torrid affair between Becky and Cal. It’s fun, but it’s weird because everyone is married and cheating on their spouses, and yet we are asked not to judge these people since their spouses are either mean or sick. Becky opens Act II with a power song (“I Didn’t Plan It”) in which she begs Jenna to understand her position. It’s a great song, wonderfully performed by Settle, but it’s just an excuse. Jenna understands Becky’s position all too well, and we can sympathize with her need for some comfort after years of Earl’s abuse. But Dr. Pomatter has a perfectly lovely wife, and no amount of comic charm and gorgeous singing can excuse that. It’s a relief when Joe, the diner owner, lays into Jenna for being an adulteress. Someone needs to remind her she’s still making bad choices! Yet, in the end, the women are all excused for the part they played in this orgy of adultery – even Joe forgives her and gives her a lot of money – and they bond together in a happy ending of female empowerment. Like I said, we need more of that in stories, but it’s still weird here.

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The book turns this show into the most traditional piece of musical theatre I saw on this trip. Bareilles’ songs offset this a bit by layering her own pop sensibility over the story. Don’t get me wrong: there is much to like about Waitress, and I feel privileged to have seen Jessie Mueller onstage. After Beautiful and after this, there is no doubt that we have a new superstar on Broadway, another Sutton Foster or Kelli O’Hara, and it will be very exciting to follow each step of her career as it happens. But I wonder, after Mueller leaves and the lights dim on Broadway, whether the show will have much of an afterlife, or if the legacy of Waitress will be Bareilles’ music, just another haunting song cycle that once got performed onstage.

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