Sugar, butter, flour — there are plenty of those ingredients, particularly the sweet stuff, in the musical Waitress, which opened Sunday night at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre. They mix in a refrain heard throughout the production, as well as the elaborate pies the show’s heroine crafts. And much like those desserts, Waitress is a sweet slice of a show that shines with the help of a star ingredient: Tony winner Jessie Mueller.
Based on the 2007 Adrienne Shelley rom-com of the same name starring Keri Russell, Waitress features music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, the singer behind piano-fueled pop hits like “Brave” and “Love Song.” It centers on Jenna (Mueller), a waitress and pie-maker at a small-town diner. Unexpectedly pregnant and looking for a way out of her loveless marriage, Jenna dreams of whipping up a better life — both in the affections of her gynecologist (yes, her gynecologist) and the hope of winning a baking contest in a neighboring town.
Bareilles’ score, paired with the direction of Diana Paulus, a book by Jessie Nelson and choreography by Lorin Latarro, has been hailed by the show as a Broadway musical’s first-ever all-female creative team. The production is filled with sweet, quirky touches — the curtain bears a lattice-crust pattern, pies are stacked high in cases along the proscenium (they’re also sold, in miniature form, at the theater’s concession stands), and Bareilles recorded a little ditty warning against cell phone usage that plays before Waitress begins.
Much of it works, but how twee is too twee? Small town stories are so often filled with lovable oddball characters (looking at you, Stars Hollow), and the people surrounding Jenna seem more like a list of characteristics than actual people. One of Jenna’s follow waitresses, Dawn (Orange is the New Black’s Kimiko Glenn), is shy but loves Revolutionary War reenactments — and that’s about as much as we get to learn about her, though it’s still fun to see her meet a kindred spirit (Christopher Fitzgerald, going full tilt with this earnest character) who shares her interests and recites spontaneous poetry. Jenna’s other fellow waitress, Becky (Keala Settle), is the brash one, with a showy song (“I Didn’t Plan It”) that kicks off Act 2.
Mueller’s Jenna is more nuanced, and the actress is the heart and soul of this production. Her performances ranges from introspective (“What Baking Can Do”) to wrenching (“She Used to Be Mine”) — and make Jenna someone you’ll root for as she dreams up fancifully-named pies and embarks on an affair with Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), the married doctor who’s new to their little hamlet. While their relationship does feel a bit forced when they first meet, it becomes more believable as the show goes on.
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.
Bareilles has crafted an upbeat, tuneful score that sounds akin to the pop sounds she’s known for — if you’re a fan, you’ll definitely like it — with layered harmonies and ballads alongside lively numbers like Jenna and Dr. Pomatter’s “Bad Idea” and the company’s “I Love You Like a Table,” which features a baking-spoon drumline. They’re performed by a band at the back of the stage with pies sitting atop the piano (more of those little touches!). Sets, by Scott Pask, feature an open sky that conjures the wide world Jenna wants to set out towards, which, fittingly, disappears completely during the scenes at home with her husband, Earl, an egotistical and controlling idiot played by Nick Cordero. Other members of the company also serve as a Greek chorus of sorts, handing Jenna ingredients as she bakes and appearing in her daydream sequences.
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+