Review: Waitress

IMG_20160421_103343371_HDRMovies turned into Broadway musicals. We are in the midst of an onslaught, and there’s no end in sight. I tend to roll my eyes whenever I hear of a new one. I mean, they can bring out the worst of Broadway’s qualities, right? It can force a weird, hilarious, original piece of film into a standard Broadway template: “I Want” song followed by comic relief followed by conditional love song followed by Big Act 2 number followed (almost always) by a happy ending. All clocking in at exactly 2 hours and 30 minutes.

(I’m not just bashing Broadway here. Stage musicals turned into movies are even worse. Remember when the film version of Jersey Boys extracted all the joy out of the show?)

On the other hand: they’re not uniformly bad. Once breaks the pattern with beautiful staging and choreography. Hairspray’s terrific score makes up for the loss of John Waters’ original voice. The Bridges of Madison County easily surpassed its hokey source material with an intelligent adaptation, beautiful music, and transcendent performances. The stage version of The Lion King, with its staging and use of puppetry, is certainly superior to the movie. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andy Blankenbuehler’s contributions to Bring it On vaulted it from humdrum movie remake to vibrant, energetic stage production. I could go on, of course. But overall these are the unusual ones. In my experience, most musical versions of movies simply aren’t as good as the original.

So where does Waitress fall? Well, good news, musical theater fans: this is more of a Hairspray than a Legally Blonde. It’s got an excellent and very tuneful score from singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, a wonderful and warm leading lady in Jessie Mueller, a lot of humor, and a lovely production. It’s an audience-pleaser: a clever show with a soul. It got a rapturous audience reaction when I saw it, and it seems pretty clear this will be a big hit.

If you haven’t seen the movie: small-town waitress Jenna (Ms. Mueller), surrounded by a group of colorful friends and colleagues (it’s like the southern version of Stars Hollow), finds herself knocked up, further entrapping her into a loveless marriage with the brutish Earl (Nick Cordero). Things get complicated when she finds herself attracted to her obstetrician (Drew Gehling).

Now. About Jessie Mueller. Throughout the show people kept raving about Jenna’s homemade pies as “unearthly” or some equally hyperbolic adjective. That’s basically how I feel about Jessie Mueller’s voice, which is gorgeous, soulful, powerful. And combine that with her ever-appealing persona (she honestly seems like the nicest person on the stage) and you get a sense of how lucky we are to have her on Broadway. She also sounds quite a bit like Sara Bareilles at times, interestingly enough. (Well, since she can mimic Carole King perfectly too, I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise.) The rest of the cast is also really strong. Drew Gehling’s performance as Dr. Pomatter is hilarious, klutzy and appealing (and isn’t it nice to see the MAN as the klutzy one in a romantic comedy?), though his performance might be a little less riotous for those of us who have seen the movie. (The funniest moments were straight out of Nathan Fillion’s book.) And both Keala Settle and Kimiko Glenn are memorable and in great voice as Jenna’s best friends. I do wish that Nick Cordero got to show off some of the charm we saw in Bullets Over Broadway, though. He’s flat-out villainous here. His one-note characterization seems, frankly, a little out of sync with the rest of the show. I wish the role had been written with a lighter touch.

Ms. Bareilles, it seems, grew up a theater nerd, which is why I wasn’t too surprised that the score was so strong. She can write everything from a standout opening number to a throaty act two climax, and do it all well. The music is buoyant, and the lyrics are thoughtful and honest, full of the humor and warmth that is infused throughout the show.

Waitress is notable for having an all-female creative team: in addition to Ms. Bareilles, it was directed by Diane Paulus, written by Jessie Nelson (relying heavily on the movie version by Adrienne Shelly), and choreographed by Lorin Lotarro (who I remember well as the associate choreographer and swing when I ushered at American Idiot). It does indeed feel like a women’s musical, and I mean that as a compliment. It passes the Bechdel test within the first few moments of the show, and it’s all about the importance of friendship, love, community and food.

On the other hand, I could see those who love the movie not caring for the musical Waitress. Sentiment is tuned up a notch. Its harsh and quirky edges have been rounded off (or turned into “musical theater quirky”, which is an entirely different thing). The comedic moments seem brasher, the romantic ones lusher. Jessie Mueller is warm and endearing in a way that Kerri Russell never was in the film, so I could see how some might say the piece overall feels a little less brave, somehow. It’s easier on the senses.

But I didn’t care about any of that. It’s a good show: smart, tuneful, well-cast. The band sounds great and the company is wonderfully diverse. It does exactly what it sets out to do, and what more can you ask? I’m happy it’s on Broadway and I’m even happier it looks to be a big hit.

Now, it must be said that Waitress has zero chance of winning the Best Musical Tony this year. If I thought it would win, I might be less enamored of it. Sound crazy? Well, here’s what it comes down to: this is a really well-executed adaptation, and I certainly liked it better than the movie. But I like musicals best when they (in the words of Mr. Sondheim) “tell ’em things they don’t know,” or when they do something unexpected in terms of writing, staging, performance. And in a season where so many productions do all of those things, Waitress falls just a tiny bit short. It’s just like the movie, only better.

My Grade: A-
Running Time: 2 Hours, 30 minutes
Ticket price: $79 (Box Office with discount)
  Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes

Next Up: Shuffle Along

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