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

Review: Spring Awakening

Hello again after an unexpected summer off blogging and theater. There were several reasons why I didn’t see much of anything since the Tonys, and why I didn’t post about the few shows I did see. But who needs excuses? (OK, for those of you who do need excuses: I broke my foot, spent two months on crutches, and had to take cabs everywhere. I felt too poor and immobile to want to go see any theater.) In any case, I’m back and feeling refreshed. (Though I’m still limping.)

Now shall we get right to it?

spring awakeningEver wonder why I abandoned my dream of becoming a professional theater critic? One reason was my reaction to Spring Awakening. I had long appreciated the Wedekind play, so I saw the musical at the Atlantic in its original off-Broadway incarnation in 2006. (This is the same production that took Broadway by storm a few months later.) Long story short: I didn’t care for it much. It’s nearly a decade ago now, so I don’t remember my thoughts precisely, but as I recall I thought it was a little ham-fisted. In any case, I later saw the Broadway production a number of times, and completely changed my mind about the musical. My revised opinion: it was powerful, beautifully staged, edgy, and very, very exciting. I recommended it to nearly all my friends, and even purchased tickets FOR them on occasion. I wondered how I could ever have disliked this. And how could I ever be a theater critic when I could change my mind so completely about a show?

Here’s where things get interesting. As it turns out, I’ve come full circle on Spring Awakening after seeing the new Broadway incarnation. It’s a fascinating musical, and it’s given a wonderful new production, but once again: I didn’t really care for it. (But I still don’t want to be a professional theater critic, as it turns out. Blogging is more fun!)

But that’s putting the cart before the horse. First, let me talk about the revival, which is a Deaf West production. You probably already know about the show, which won the Best Musical Tony in 2007. But in case you forgot: Melchior, Moritz, and Wendla are teens in 1890s Germany who have been given little to no information about sex from their parents. The consequences are tragic. Now, if you are lucky, you also already know all about Deaf West, because you saw their unforgettable Big River back in the early aughts. (Absolutely stunning!) In terms of spectacular staging, Spring Awakening is on a par with Big River. The new staging certainly brings added meaning to the musical: in the Playbill, there’s a fascinating director’s note that tells us sign language for Deaf students was banned in 1880 (with the idea that Deaf students needed to learn to read lips and adjust to life in a hearing world). In this version of Spring Awakening, awkward and confused young Moritz is Deaf, and his struggles in school clearly result from his failure to understand his teachers. It makes perfect sense, and his ultimate fate feels even more tragic.

Director Michael Arden uses a cast of both Deaf and hearing actors to portray the teenagers as well as their parents and teachers. Sandra Mae Frank is an expressive Wendla, for example, who communicates through sign language during most of the show. Her constant companion onstage is Katie Boeck, who sings all of Wendla’s songs, and frequently holds hands with Ms. Frank. Seems bizarre that a young Deaf German girl’s inner soul would look like a modern indie rocker, doesn’t it? But it works beautifully in the context of the show.

The entire production is fluid and beautifully staged, with terrific acting all around. Plus there’s that evocative choreography from Spencer Liff (though I don’t know if the movement was as beautiful as Bill T. Jones’s choreography in the original production).

But as I said, I didn’t like it. I think it’s mostly because once you’ve gotten past the shock factor of explicit sex in a Broadway musical (and I’m certainly past it, given how many times I saw and listened to the original) you may start to realize something. Spring Awakening, to my mind, just doesn’t hold up very well. The script reads like a clunky translation of Wedekind’s original German, with odd skips in dialogue. (The original play is more episodic, but each scene seems to make more sense.) Plus there are definite plot holes, though to be fair some of those were in the original script. And then there are the lyrics. I understand that Steven Sater was trying to do something different, and more modern, with the lyrics more like those in rock songs than musical theater. But these aren’t even very good rock lyrics. Plus they don’t really sit on the music very well. For example, a teen sings: “I go up to my room, turn the stereo on/Shoot up some you in the ‘you’ of some song.” I sort of understand what he’s saying, I guess, but it’s just a bizarre way to say it. The awkward phrasing and (literally) purple imagery kept taking me out of the moment, precisely the opposite of what a musical theater song should do.

I hadn’t planned on seeing Spring Awakening at all — it seems like it just left Broadway a few years ago, and i didn’t particularly feel like paying $50 to see a retread. Especially not when there are so many new shows to see! But I was convinced by the rapturous recommendations from friends as well as critics. I don’t regret going to see it, because this is truly a beautiful production with stunning direction from Michael Arden. It left me wanting to see Deaf West come back to Broadway with a show that’s even worthier of its many talents.

My Grade: B
Ticket price: $51 (TDF)
Running Time: 2 Hours, 20 Minutes
Standing Ovation Watch: 95%

Review Roundup for Spring, Part 1

“I’m in a fallow period,” I announced to my roommates the other day. I was referring, of course, to my infrequent updates to this blog, despite having seen lots (LOTS!) of shows in the past month. In the interest of catching up, I thought I’d post fairly brief thoughts on the plays I’ve seen since my last update. The first four are here, and I’ll post the next four as soon as I can. And once that is taken care of, I hope to be back to my regular posting schedule.

2015-03-08 13.55.41The Iceman Cometh (March 8): I’d managed to avoid Eugene O’Neill’s famous tragedy for my entire theatergoing life. Up until the recent production at BAM starring Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy, that is. Why avoid an American classic? Well, in my experience Eugene O’Neill plays are often a bit of a slog; I rarely respond to his work with much emotion or enthusiasm. This production of Cometh, however, was acclaimed as an outstanding, and so I gave it a shot. It’s the story of despondent, dejected barflies, who look forward to the periodic visits of a charismatic salesman friend, Theodore Hickman (Nathan Lane). Hickey (as they call him) decides to rouse everyone from their drunken stupor; the consequences are ultimately tragic.

I spent much of the play frustrated — “Good grief,” I thought, “Eugene O’Neill never takes one minute to say something when he can take 15! — despite the many excellent performances. (Especially Nathan Lane, who is always terrific, and Brian Dennehy, who looked every bit the broken anarchist.) Now this play was nearly five hours long, so you understand my impatience with all the wordy passages. I continued to resist it throughout the first three acts (and through all three intermissions). I could see the writing was skilled, but I found little to connect with. By the play’s final curtain, however, I felt differently. It’s just so rare to see a play with that kind of expansive vision and grand ambition these days, and to my surprise, the wordiness and lethargic pace of the earlier acts ultimately really built towards something very moving indeed. I don’t know that I’ll bother with The Iceman Cometh again, but I’m glad I saw it this time around.

2015-03-14 20.04.33Hand to God (March 14): It just opened Tuesday night, but it was already in very good shape a few weeks ago. The show is about a teen named Jason (Steven Boyer) whose hand becomes possessed by his sock puppet, a truly vile, foul-mouthed, ugly creature named Tyrone. Violence, sexual repression, and buried emotions quickly bubble up to the surface when Tyrone is around — and since this play is set in the meeting room of a Texas church, you can imagine the shock waves that result from Tyrone’s reign of terror. I found it scathingly funny and very dark; it’s chock full of excellent performances, especially Mr. Boyer’s performance as both Tyrone and Jason. Over the weeks since I saw Hand to God, though, I’ve rarely given it much thought. A friend asked about it the other night and I was surprised at how little I had to say about it. (“Well, yeah, I really liked it” followed by a stony silence.) Perhaps its darkness put me off a bit somehow. It’s a play that I found viscerally compelling while watching it, but its sharp edges may have made me too uncomfortable to ponder outside the theater. My loss, I suppose.

2015-03-17 19.50.44It Shoulda Been You (March 17): Everything I’d heard about this wacky wedding day musical was incredibly negative, so I went into the theater expecting incompetence. Now, I know incompetent musicals. I’d even say I’m deeply familiar with them: I spent several years as a script reader for the New York Musical Theater Festival, and man, did I ever come across a ton of clunkers. All this to say It Shoulda Been You is NOT actually a clunker. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a great musical, probably not even a good musical. Don’t go unless you’re willing to turn your brain off: if you start to think too much about the ridiculous plot twists that crop up throughout the show, you’ll probably want to bang your head against a wall. I actually enjoyed myself, though, because it sets out to be a fun, frothy, silly piece and mostly succeeds. This might have been mostly thanks to the hilarious performances of Tyne Daly (as the bride’s nasty mother) and Harriet Harris (as the groom’s nasty mother), and the very winning leading lady Lisa Howard (who actually plays the sister of the bride). It Shoulda Been You doesn’t feel like it belongs on Broadway. It’s a dinner theater piece. My guess is that it only got to Broadway because of David Hyde Pierce’s involvement (he directed the show, and his husband Brian Hargrove wrote the book). But hey, like I said, it’s not a complete clunker!

2015-03-20 20.10.10Wolf Hall, Parts 1 and 2 (March 20 and 21): If you want to know how I felt about Wolf Hall the play, you’ll have to hear about Wolf Hall the book first. In brief: I thought the first book was a real slog, and didn’t entirely understand the acclaim for it. Then a friend loaned me Wolf Hall‘s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, and I simply flew threw it. We puzzled over this, because Hilary Mantel’s writing style is exactly the same in both novels. And you can’t skip the first novel and just read the second (you’ll have missed too much).

In any case, I’m glad I read the books before seeing the plays, which are really wonderful. Beautifully staged, compelling, tense. The cast is terrific (no surprise from this Brit import) and the stark, open-staged production moves at a really fast clip. Intelligent, illuminating historical plays are one of my favorite genres, and this one comes to life beautifully. Plus it’s clever. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from the books: I kept recognizing lines and thinking “Wow, I remember this from the book. I didn’t realize how witty it was.” The tickets for the two plays were bundled together, so I saw Part 1 on a Friday, and Part 2 on a Saturday. And it was a great way to spend a weekend: the shows were Interestingly enough, I found the first play to be clearly better than the second (the exact opposite of how I felt about the novels). To be fair, I’d gone out for a few beers before the second play, and may have been in less of a theatergoing frame of mind.

Four down, four to go. Stay tuned for even briefer thoughts on the other shows I’ve seen since then: Something Rotten, It’s Only a Play, Living on Love, and The King and I.

Review: Love Letters

2014-09-15 18.51.38Just to illustrate how clueless I am: I walked into the Brooks Atkinson to see Love Letters and saw the pictures of actors like Carol Burnett, Martin Sheen, and Angelica Huston over the box office window. “Wow!”, I thought to myself. “This show sure has a star-studded cast! I hope I don’t get any understudies!” As everyone besides me knows, though, Love Letters is actually a two-character piece, and the other actors will be performing in the weeks and months to come. To be fair I think I knew that at one point. Anyway, if Sherlock Holmes can forget that the earth revolves around the sun, I can forget how many characters are in a play I’m going to see. Though It seems like a stretch to even call it a play: the entire performance consists of Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy seated at a table, reading fifty years’ worth of love letters.

Let me just say upfront that the whole thing didn’t feel like it should have been on Broadway. An evening at Symphony Space, yes. But I do not think I’d be happy if I had paid full Broadway prices to watch two people read out a story. That doesn’t mean I disliked the show, though. Actually I found Andy and Melissa’s love story to be warm, sad, funny, and ultimately very moving. Andy is a smart and ambitious working-class kid. Melissa is wealthy, defiant, and troubled. They meet as young children and fall for each other nearly from the start, though for various reasons (class differences, teenage hangups, other relationships) their love story is mostly conducted through letters.

Brian Dennehy does well — as usual — but his character is fairly stodgy. Mia Farrow as Melissa is really the star here. First of all, she’s incredibly funny. Melissa is frequently snarky towards Andrew, telling him when his letters are boring or threatening to moon him when he’s being a prig. Even better, Ms. Farrow has a wonderful fragility to her that fits Melissa’s damaged persona beautifully: her occasional breakdowns make perfect sense.

2014-09-15 18.57.34There were a few things about the story that frustrated me, though. Andy and Melissa really do just keep missing each other in terms of romantic connections. Feels a bit forced. It just seems like some of the characters’ problems are tossed in for plot reasons rather than sprouting organically. I had this kind of problem with another Gurney play currently running here, The Wayside Motor Inn. Still though, I found myself thinking about Andy and Melissa’s story for days after I saw Love Letters, and that’s always a nice thing.

Still though, I’m not sure it needed to be a play. You’d get most of the same joys from an audiobook or podcast production. Let’s hope they produce one someday! (If they haven’t already. Again, I’m fairly clueless sometimes.)

My Grade: B
Running Time: 90 minutes
Ticket price: $43 on TDF
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes