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Theatre in Review: Waitress (Brooks Atkinson Theatre)

Drew Gehling, Jessie Mueller. Photo: Joan Marcus

Among musical theatre stars, Jessie Mueller is a most intriguing odd woman out. Most of her colleagues are extroverts class clowns, take-charge types who own the stage the minute they step onto it. Mueller is the quiet girl in the back row, the diffident one, better at dramatizing ambivalence and unspoken feelings than throwing sparkle dust in the audience's eyes. She goes about her business using the subtlest of means, building a character out of dozens of tiny details; she's an actress rather than a performer. And when she uncorks that unexpectedly stunning singing voice, the surprise is all the more powerful: Did that unassuming young lady really just shake the theatre's foundations?

All of which makes Mueller ideal casting for the role of Jenna, a small-town diner waitress whose life is hurtling toward train-wreck status. Unhappily married to Earl, a selfish, usually unemployed brute who uses her as a cash machine, Jenna is appalled to discover that she is pregnant. Unable to face facts, she plays for time, holding back the information while struggling to come up with a plan. It doesn't help that her gynecologist has retired and been replaced by Dr. Pomatter, a sweet, goofy-sexy, and very married man -- and they instantly share an irresistible chemistry. The one thing Jenna has going for her is her preternatural skill at creating pies that leave the diner's customers swooning with delight. And soon, Jenna, the original good girl, is living a life of rebellion, cheating on her husband with the doctor and secreting away money to finance her participation in a national bake-off where she hopes to win $20,000 -- enough, she reckons, to finance an escape from her shambles of a life.

As long as Waitress sticks close to Jenna and her problems, it makes for sweet, soulful entertainment. Mueller is excellent company as she whips up such eccentrically named treats as Marshmallow Mermaid Pie and My Eggs Betrayed Me Pie (the one after the fateful pregnancy test) and reminisces about the mother who kept her in the kitchen and away from her abusive father. We root for her as she nervously talks Earl out of hitting her, dropping the news about her pregnancy, and we feel her self-disgust as he makes her promise she will never put their child first. We are also amused, and a little bit fearful, as she impulsively throws herself at her doctor, igniting a too-hot-to-handle affair that will shake up both their lives. Sara Bareilles, the pop star making her Broadway songwriting debut, has provided Jenna with some lively numbers, including a surprisingly stirring anthem called "What a Little Baking Can Do," a rueful, ruthless bit of self-examination titled "She Used to Be Mine," and "Bad Idea," as Jessie and Pomatter give in to their worst impulses. Truth be told, Bareilles' music, marked by bouncy piano vamps and melodies that sometimes ache with longing, are generally better than her lyrics; here is another writer from the pop music world who hasn't mastered the art of rhyming. But she does come up with several lovely lyrical ideas and, overall, this is a fairly auspicious Broadway debut.

The trouble with Waitress lies in Jessie Nelson's book, which is much broader and brassier than its source material, Adrienne Shelly's gentle, introspective film of the same name; it gets carried away with its wacky secondary characters. A surprising amount of time is spent on Dawn, a waitress -- a plain Jane with an addiction to the History Channel and a hobby playing Betsy Ross in Revolutionary War re-enactments -- and her romance with Ogie, a nerdy accountant with OCD tendencies who shares Dawn's obsessions and practically stalks her until she gives in. Kimiko Glenn and Christopher Fitzgerald are a pair of pros -- Fitzgerald nearly hijacks the first act with "Never Getting Rid of Me," his romantic pitch, complete with an interlude of step-dancing -- but they seem to occupy another comic universe altogether. The same is true of Keala Settle, who wisecracks with assurance as Becky, another waitress, but her romantic life -- with a beau not to be named here -- is also jarringly presented for surprisingly vulgar laughs. At times, Waitress feels like two different shows, uneasily conjoined. The touching tale of a woman at long last discovering her worth is forced to compete with a brash, highly cartooned musical sitcom. The director, Diane Paulus, seems to have picked up a few bad habits from Finding Neverland, her offering of last season; several moments, including a farcical triptych of illicit romantic assignations, pander unnecessarily for laughs.

Still, there are compensations from the supporting cast: Drew Gehling makes the doctor into a genuinely appealing figure, in his way as lost as Jenna, and Nick Cordero gives Earl a real touch of humanity, especially when he discovers Jenna's hidden cash and reveals his almost pathetic dependence on her. Dakin Matthews is as smooth as one of Jenna's pies as the diner's cranky owner, who also acts as a kind of deus ex machina. The second act, which focuses more on Jenna, improves on the first, especially as the show engineers a mortifying hospital delivery attended by both Pomatter and his wife (also a physician), a rueful faceoff between Jenna and the doctor, and a lovely flash-forward sequence set to "Everything Changes," arguably the evening's most touching number.

Waitress moves well, aided by Lorin Latarro's fluid musical staging, and it looks good, thanks to Scott Pask's diner set and other units depicting Pomatter's office, the hospital, and Jessie's home, most of them set against a beautifully painted drop depicting a country road snaking off into the distance. An especially witty touch is the pair of pie carousels, like you see at your favorite diner, built into the proscenium. Christopher Akerlind's lighting washes the drop with some lovely color treatments. Suttirat Anne Larlarb's costumes are aptly conceived. Jonathan Deans' sound design seems a little hard-edged at first -- and he can't solve the issue of Mueller's slightly blurry diction -- but is overall clean and intelligible.

Whatever happens after its opening night, Waitress is showing definite signs of being an audience show. Preview grosses have been robust and the audience reaction at the performance I attended was over the moon. Still, it's a show best enjoyed in its more intimate, offhand moments; every time it adopts hard-sell tactics, much of its charm fades away. But any establishment that serves up a Jessie Mueller Vocal Pie is one you may want to patronize. -- David Barbour

(25 April 2016)

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