Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller makes a triumphant return to the Broadway stage in the new musical Waitress, based on the 2007 Indie film. She plays Jenna, a down on her luck waitress in a southern diner. She is in an abusive marriage, has no other job prospects, and is pregnant. Her two co-workers, Dawn (Kimiko Glenn) and Becky (Keala Settle), provide moral support and help keep her on an even keel. Jenna does have one special talent. She bakes pies. Scrumptious pies. Delectable pies. The process keeps her sane in her topsy turvey world.
Waitress shows us Jenna’s journey, which includes an intense affair with her married doctor, her relationship with the denizens of the eating establishment, a resolution of her marital discord and, finally, the beginnings of a new life. Book writer Jessie Nelson keenly focuses on the camaraderie of the three waitresses at the diner. Each has a compelling back-story that adds depth to their characters and the plot. There are crackling one-liners, comedic subplots and emotional ups and downs. The preparation and craftsmanship of the baked goods is one of the central foci of the production. Nelson has incorporated generous helpings of the pie making process into the show, which gives a hominess and real world feel to the musical.
The score by Sara Bareilles is enlivened by her contemporary music sensibility. There is a satisfying balance between her pop background and traditional Broadway melodies. Unlike many novices to the stage her songs are character driven and advance the storyline. Having the band onstage adds a vibrancy and playfulness to the production.
Jessie Muller is a likeable actress that you immediately want to root for in her role as Jenna. She is strong-willed, impetuous, and vulnerable. She also seems to know how to make a mean tasting pie. Keala Settle as her large, boisterous colleague, Becky, is the perfect foil for Mueller’s more restrained character. Settle’s trading of bon mots with cook and diner owner Cal (Eric Anderson) is comic joy. Kimiko Glenn, as Dawn, adds an element of insecurity and ditziness as the final member of the waitressing triumvirate. Her courtship with Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald) provides a gratifying second tier plot line that embellishes the overall arc of the show without becoming a distraction. Fitzgerald, as he has demonstrated throughout his musical comedy career, provides a consistent spark and crowd-pleasing humor to the show. Drew Gehling as Dr. Pomatter comes across as sympathetic and charming, even though he is in an adulterous relationship with Jenna. He is appealingly awkward and his chemistry with Jenna is believable and convincing. Nick Codero has the thankless role of Jenna’s ornery, selfish husband Earl. He does an admirable job trying to make the character less loathsome, but still manages to give the part a menacing edge.
Director Diane Paulus tightly structures the show, having pared each scene to its dramatic essentials. She deftly keeps the focus on the three women, providing just the right amount of scenes with the male characters to push the story forward. She artfully crafts each of the pie-making sequences with aplomb and loving care. By intertwining the ensemble and other members of the cast, the baking process becomes a symphony of motion and culinary artistry.
Waitress, one of the more refreshing musicals to open this Broadway season.