In a Broadway season of so-so new musicals (putting aside the phenomenon of Hamilton) at last there’s something that deserves to be a sizable hit and probably will be. It’s a sweet development. Maybe it has to be for a tuner whose first word is ”sugar” and which repeats that word numerous times from start to finish.
Such sugar-coating works because this is Waitress, the stage adaptation of Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 surprise hit movie about Jenna Hunterson (Jessie Mueller), the expert pie maker at Joe’s Pie Diner. She may start every pie with those sine qua non ingredients — sugar, butter, flour — but what isn’t sweet is her unhappy life with her tyrannical husband, Earl (Nick Cordero).
Working happily with fellow wait-staffers Becky (Keala Settle) and Dawn (Kimiko Glenn), under demanding manager Cal (Eric Anderson) and lovably caustic owner Joe (Dakin Matthews), Jenna begins to find some satisfaction with a married ob-gyn, Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling). At the same time, Dawn is being successfully pursued by improvisational poet Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald) while Becky and Cal embark on a surprising affair.
Musicals incorporating dyed-in-the-wool villains like Earl aren’t typical these days, but Waitress still retains its sunny atmosphere as the complications between these characters get ironed out. Or maybe it would be better to say they’re pulled from the oven as Whoopie Pies.
Book writer Jessie Nelson sticks closely to the recipe that Shelly used for her screenplay. Devotees of the heartwarming flick will recognize line after line, situation after situation. If the largest contribution Nelson makes to the screen-to-stage jump is trusting Shelly to write about real people in honest plights, it’s more than enough.
Sara Bareilles wrote the songs. She’s better known to pop folks and the Grammy nominators than to the Broadway crowd, and she doesn’t stray far from her contemporary roots, even when creating character-driven numbers. To put it another way, she’s as far from a Sondheim-influenced tunesmith as could be, thinking nothing of off-rhyming “mine” with “time” with “find.”
But the songs are sufficiently pleasant as they pass. Actually, at least three of them are more than that and benefit from the deliveries given to them. In Act II, Mueller puts every ounce of commitment she can into “She Used to Be Mine,” which could become a Top 40 click if Broadway ditties still had any heft on the charts:
When Ogie is forging his way into Dawn’s timid heart, he toots “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” the propulsive drive of which is enhanced by Diane Paulus’ direction and Lorin Latarro’s choreography. The sexy-as-all-get-out “Bad Idea” first-act finale, during which Jenna and Dr. Pomatter conclude that sex might be at least a temporarily good idea — and again as aided by staging that gives prominence to the six-piece on-stage band, conducted from the piano by Nadia DiGiallonardo.
Paulus, who’s been making a semi-annual habit of bringing a new musical or revival to the Great White Way, does neatly by this entry, with appealing treats for the eye and ear as Scott Pask’s sets come and go smoothly. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting and Jonathan Dean’s sound add to the slick effect.
For the last four or five years, which isn’t very long at all, Jesse Mueller has been turning herself into one of the Broadway’s musical’s current leading ladies. As Carole King in Beautiful, her most recent outing, she won the Tony. No one should be surprised if she’s nominated again for the emotional depth and plain good humor she brings to Jenna’s up-and-down story.
She heads a troupe in which everyone, including Latarro’s hardworking dancers, shines, but none more than Glenn and Settle, who’s is one of Broadway’s favorite belters. Fitzgerald, a longtime stalwart, does perhaps his best work yet here as well. Gehling, Anderson and Matthews take the stage exuberantly in their focal moments, and here’s a special nod to Cordero. Because audiences aren’t meant to side with villains, actors portraying them often receive milder mittage at curtain calls. Cordero, who was a Bullets Over Broadway scene-stealer, deserves to earn applause commensurate with his peers.
On its trip to Manhattan from American Repertory Theater, Paulus’ main stomping grounds, Waitress has courted publicity as being constructed entirely by women — a precedent for a Broadway musical. It’s a strong and an overdue precedent requiring a large welcome mat.