Audiences at Waitress, the American Repertory Theatre’s brand new musical, are put in the mood for what is to come by the charming scalloped pie-shaped proscenium and cherry filling represented by the curtain. The show opens with Jenna (Jessie Mueller) in the midst of – yes, you guessed it – making a pie.
Contemporized by a somewhat feminist approach and spicy sex, the vintage plot revolves around Jenna, a waitress in a small-town diner somewhere in the south. Her peerless and ever-changing pies keep the customers coming, and please Old Joe (Dakin Matthews), her curmudgeonly boss. The pies, each given a name, also serve as an outlet for her inner feelings.
Jenna is married to Earl (Joe Tippett) a jealous, possessive lout who takes her daily tips and roughs her up from time to time. Unknown to Earl, Jenna is pregnant. Although she does not want to keep the baby, she sees Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), a gynecologist new to town, for prenatal care. The two fall in love, and indulge in deliriously funny passionate escapades on the examining table, spied on by the doctor’s nurse. When Jenna discovers that Pomatter is married, she gives up her hopes for a long term relationship. Only with the birth of Lulu, does Jenna discover the strength to rid herself of Earl and take charge of her life and child. After her decision is made, Jenna finally opens an envelope that Old Joe gave her, before he went into a coma, and discovers that he left her the diner. In the last scene, we see Lulu (Gianna Ribiero in the performance I attended), now six years old, standing down stage, mixing pie filling, just as Jenna does at the opening. Jenna joins her and they sing “Lulu’s Pie Song.”
If the storyline seems familiar, you, unlike me, may have seen the 2007 film, which enjoyed a certain popularity. However, it seems obvious that the biggest difference between the two works is that the adaptation is a musical. Director Diane Paulus, who has a record of success with musical theatre, engaged the reputed singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles to compose the music and lyrics, although she had no previous professional experience with musicals. The result is music that ranges from a vibrant pop sound to the melodic, and lyrics that reveal character. Jennie Nelson, a cineaste, wrote the book.
Paulus, Bareilles, and Nelson worked and continue to work collaboratively, readying the production for Broadway. Their close relationship mirrors to some extent that of Jenna and her co-waitresses Becky (Keala Settle) and Dawn (Jeanna de Waal). Jessie Mueller (last year’s Tony Award winner for best actress in a musical) plays the various sides of Jenna truthfully and with verve. Jeanna de Waal’s Dawn is appropriately goofy and Keala Settle belts her songs with energy and humor.
Drew Gehling brings a quirky, yet tender quality to Dr. Pomatter. Although Joe Tippett’s Earl is appropriately brutal and dumb, his neediness manages to evoke sympathy. Kudos to Dakin Matthews for his subtle acting technique. His rendition of “Take It From an Old Man” is a delight.
There is much to be commended in Waitress, not least the Scott Pask’s minimalist set. The diner, the most frequently seen setting, makes good use of the entire stage. Front and center, there are two chairs and a table, and just above them a couple of booths for customers, played by the ensemble. A small kitchen, the domain of Cal (Eric Anderson) the cook, is up left. In one of his funniest moments, from behind the pass-through Cal improvises a musical number, using spatulas and a frying pan. Furniture pieces roll on and off as needed. The band, partially hidden by their low light, sits in front of large beautifully lit windows which reveal a blue sky, grassy flatlands, and an endless line of telephone poles.
Although we follow Jenna’s arc from unhappy wife who lives in fear of her abusive husband, lying to Earl rather than confronting him, to an independent woman, her autonomy is won by a gift from her former boss, undercutting the “feminist” aspect of the play. Waitress is at times delightful, absorbing, comical and sentimental – a fairy tale, complete with happy ending.
American Repertory Theatre Production of Waitress
Book ……………………… Jessie Nelson
Music & Lyrics …………… Sara Bareilles
Director …………………… Diane Paulus
Scenic Designer ……………Scott Pask
Costume Designer ………….Suttirat Larlarb
Lighting Designer …………..Kenneth Posner
Sound Designer ……………..Jonathan Deans
Jenna ……….. Jessie Mueller
Cal ………….. Eric Anderson
Becky ……….. Keala Settle
Dawn ………… Jeanna De Waal
Joe ……………Dakin Matthews
Earl ………….. Joe Tippett
Dr. Pomatter … Drew Gehling
Ogie …………. Jeremy Moss
Lulu ………… Giana Ribiero
Ensemble …… Charity Angél Dawson, David Jennings, Core Mach, Ragan Pharris,
Cullen R. Titmas, Stephanie Torns
Plays at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA through September 27, 2015.