I’m sorry to have to report that Jessie Mueller, the appealing young lead in last season’s Beautiful, the Carole King Musical, has moved on to the role of Jenna in the musical adaptation of the film Waitress. I’m sorry because everything about her former vehicle was superior to the one she is now carrying at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. It appears that Sara Bareilles, a five-time Grammy Award nominated singer-song writer, made up her mind to follow Cindy Lauper, Paul Simon, Phil Collins, Stew, and others known for their successes in the recording industry, onto the flow of artists seeking a Broadway outing. Ms. Bareilles, in a recent interview, stated that she was surprised at the difficulties she encountered in the new medium, unaccustomed as she’d been to collaborating. Working on Waitress with book writer Jessie Nelson, and with Director Diane Paulus and a company of actors with needs of their own, she was astounded at the time it took to finally raise the curtain in New York.
Jessie Nelson has been the artistic director of the Sundance Writers Lab, but she too ran into difficulties in turning this source material into a workable musical theatre piece. What she’s come up with is a story about a hardworking and very decent woman who is trapped in a bad marriage to a one-dimensional tyrant, whose defiant attitude costs him his construction worker job, leaving the support of the couple entirely up to his wife Jenna. She in turn has bonded with two fellow-waitresses, but evidently Ms. Nelson felt they were there primarily for comic relief, because she’s written them as the sort of cartoon characters that populated the musical Li’l Abner in days gone by. She’s also created an old geezer named Joe, who owns the coffee and pie shop in which the three ladies work under the management of another creepy guy named Cal. When Jenna finds herself pregnant with an unwanted baby, she places herself in the hands of a local gynecologist – Dr. Jim Pomatter, played as a goofy kind of adolescent by the appealing Drew Gehling.
There is a secondary love story that pits the kooky waitress named Dawn with a blind date named Ogie, and though Kimiko Glenn and Christopher Fitzgerald play these two with the kind of nuttiness that Jack Oakie and Martha Raye brought to the college humor movies of the ancient 1930s, they seem to be in another show. The two performers are loose-limbed and game, and they do add energy to the contrived tale Ms. Nelson has concocted, but the problem is that, when combined with the country twang of Ms. Bareille’s pleasant melodies and unpolished lyrics, it places a heavy burden on the parallel story of Jenna’s very heavy problem in coping with an unwanted pregnancy and a doomed love affair with dopey Dr. Jim Pomatter.
Mixed in the batter of this musical which spends a lot of time putting butter, sugar, and flour into mixing bowls to create pies, is the always reliable yarn about the worm turning. In this case, it is Jenna who turns instantly into a strong and decisive woman the moment her newborn is placed in her arms. Though ninety percent of her story is downbeat and tragic, she manages to make a ninety degree turn in an instant just in time for a rousing anthem that tells us that,”Everything Changes” and then we can do a reprise of the opening number, called — no surprise here — “Opening Up”
Diane Paulus, who brought a fresh directorial eye to the recent Broadway revivals of Porgy and Bess and Pippin, has slipped this time out. In this adaptation of a decent small film, she has allowed the dumbing down of all the male characters. Jenna’s husband Earl, for example, is so viciously chauvinistic, such an unattractive control freak, that it reflects badly on Jenna that she puts up with him through years of abuse. In the film, Earl is written as a charming rake, and as played by Jeremy Cisco in that film, one can more readily understand the attraction she feels for him. Not so in the musical.
In the role of old Joe, the man who owns the pie shop, Andy Griffith played the warm and cuddly character with which he was so identified. In the musical, Joe is well-acted by Dakin Matthews, but as written he’s just an old codger, another one-dimensional eccentric. And that hurts because he will figure as the deus ex machina that very much affects the plot.
The physical production is adequate. In order to fill the stage, the six-piece country orchestra occupies space up there behind the actors, so they look like other customers. The choreography by Lorin Lotarro is virtually non-existent but when Christopher Fitzgerald, as Ogie, does a little jig, it’s fun to watch him raise some dust. Fitzgerald has always shown great control as a performer, and he manages to combine nuttiness with reality to deliver a nifty performance, the one supporting character that feels real. Charity Angél Dawson makes much of the Doctor’s Nurse, and Keala Settle oozes easily around as one of Jenna’s waitress compadres.
To return to the star of the piece, there is no question that Jessie Mueller has the right stuff to deserve stardom. For some reason, her lyrics are almost totally unintelligible and it’s not the fault of the sound design, for all the other principals can be totally understood when singing. Ms. Mueller had no problem in delivering the Carole King lyrics in Beautiful so it’s difficult to explain why her lyrics are mostly muddied this time out. But her performance in the very heavy book scenes is excellent, and she fights the inept writing of Jenna by always playing her for real. I’ll be eager to see what she tackles next, for she elevates her present material to deserve the reception she gets in her rousing final bow.
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with an intermission.