Broadway musical Waitress — based on the 2007 film of the same name starring Keri Russell — opened last month, complete with authentic pie aromas and music by pop singer Sara Bareilles. The play tells the story of a server at a small-town diner who "dreams of using her pie-making talents to finance an escape from her abusive marriage."
So, should you drop your hard-earned cash on tickets? Critics are weighing in and, while the show isn't without its flaws, reviews seem largely positive — particularly for Tony Award-winning actress Jessie Mueller, who plays the lead. Below, a review roundup.
The positives far outnumber the negatives. Jenna is a heroine of the moment, taking control of her life and offering no apologies for her choices, even — or especially — the arguable ones. Mueller has a girl-next-door appeal that sublimates into something less earthbound when she sings, her pleasingly throbby mezzo a purring engine in ballads until she lets out the reins and the horsepower kicks in.
Much of the score, by the pop singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, is appealing, drawing on the sounds of country music reflecting the Southern setting, but also containing more traditional Broadway-pop balladry. But the book by Jessie Nelson, based on the movie written and directed by (and co-starring) Adrienne Shelly, tends to flatten most of the characters into comic cartoons. ... Only Jenna seems fully drawn from life, and the emotional arc of her character conforms to familiar stories about oppressed women finding their inner strength. ... Still, "Waitress," directed by Diane Paulus, taps into its wellsprings of universal feeling with a slick surface professionalism rather than anything approaching real depth.
There are good things in the second act, which is more lyrical and less silly. Gehling's eerily beautiful voice turns his love duet with Mueller ("You Matter to Me") into a heartbreaker. Dakin Matthews, as the avuncular diner owner who is actually named Joe, steps out and into the audience's arms with his warm and witty solo, "Take It From an Old Man." One of the waitresses, Keala Settle's Becky, stops vamping and gets serious in "I Didn't Plan It." And Mueller allows a proud and self-respecting Jenna to claim her independence in "She Used to Be Mine." It's a nice moment. Too bad it took so long to get here.
Musicals commonly have a second-act problem. "Waitress" is one of the few that actually gets better as it goes along. Paulus' direction grows more supple, the quirks of the characters become more richly inhabited, the music travels to more poignant places and Mueller's performance just goes from strength to strength.
Admittedly, the comic coincidences and plot conveniences don't stand the test of realism and the ending is sentimental in a non-rom-com way. But the show's heart is earned through the beauty and integrity of Mueller's work.
With Mueller buoying the show, Waitress weaves in dreamy moments ("A Soft Place to Land" ties the hopes of the three waitresses to a pie they're baking together, complete with flour in the air) and funny ones. It never gets too dark, even when it looks like all Jenna's plans may have been for naught...
Waitress is warm and endearing, but, like Jenna, it yearns to go somewhere it can't quite get to. Luckily, the sweetest moments are filling enough. B+
Mueller is ideally matched to Bareilles' lilting melodic flights with their supple key transitions. Her voice shifts effortlessly from a breathy whisper to a powerful surge of released feeling, all of it bathed in a signature warmth that makes her one of the most exciting discoveries to emerge on Broadway in recent years. She's so damn good you start mentally casting her in classic musical roles while you're watching.
But something odd happens to this pie-crust thin story when Jenna, the resolute heroine, becomes Jenny, the singing doormat. Diane Paulus's direction and Jessie Nelson's book never let us forget that Jenna is victim, first and foremost. And so was her loving mother, who appears as a ghost, baking pies when she isn't being beaten up by her own thug of a husband. The result of all this marital and on-the-job abuse is that the men's behavior, past and present, overwhelms the show.
Best of all, singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, making her theatrical debut, supplies a set of songs that have her own distinctive twang of country-inflected pop yet also pulse with feeling. They contain a bracing edge that commands rapt, enraptured attention, while director Diane Paulus keeps things emotionally engaging, witty and lingeringly, achingly human.