exit-lines-logoWaitress, an indie hit in 2007, has been reborn as a delightful Broadway musical, now playing at the Brooks Atkinson. The star of the show is the phenomenal Jessie Mueller, who dominated the “revisal” of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever before winning a Tony as Carole King in the jukebox musical Beautiful. This is her first opportunity to originate new material, provided by Grammy nominee Sara┬áBareilles, and she raises the roof with one number after another. A wonder she is.

header-home-sm5_01While Mueller more than earns her tips, she doesn’t have to carry the show. The weight is equally distributed. The guiding spirit of filmmaker Adrienne Shelly is felt throughout Waitress, which taps, deeply but gently, into a
girl power vibe. Jenna (Mueller) has dead-ended in a sleepy Southern town, saddled with a brutish husband (Nick Cordero, last seen channeling Chazz Palminteri in the short-lived Bullets Over Broadway musical) and doing shift after shift in Joe’s Pie Diner. Smiling through despite her stress and anxiety, Jenna pours her hopes and dreams into her culinary creations, which range from “Falling in Love Chocolate Mousse Pie” to the one that mirrors her present condition, “Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie.” Jenna doesn’t want her baby–but she does want her affably handsome gynecologist, an Easterner, Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling). The inconvenient truth of his own marriage aside, Pomatter awkwardly, then ardently, returns her affection. As Jenna adjusts to her changing circumstances, she sets her sights on winning a baking competition with a $20,000 cash prize.

Neither the movie nor Jessie Nelson’s rowdy, loving book and a goofy yet suave performance by Gehling solve the problem of Dr. Pomatter, who as in the movie can’t help but come off as a creepily well-intentioned opportunist (and a terrible physician). Waitress suggests that affairs can clear the head (Jenna’s sassy colleague, Becky, played by a scene-stealing Keala Settle, also has someone on the side), but never satisfactorily unpacks that notion. The show is stronger when exploring the bonds between mother and daughter (the graceful staging by director Diane Paulus, of the recent, outstanding revivals of Pippin and Hair, manifests Jenna’s mom onstage), aborning lovers (Kimiko Glenn and Christopher Fitzgerald are amusingly mismatched as Dawn, another lovelorn waitress in the pie shop, and her unlikely suitor), and friends, with veteran Dakin Matthews as the crusty Joe, who keeps a watchful eye over Jenna.

17456-0Known for hits like “Love Song” and “Brave,” Bareilles is a Broadway neophyte, like Cyndi Lauper (Kinky Boots) and Sting (The Last Ship) before her, but she’s on everyone’s radar now. It’s not easy to write ballads like “She Used to Be Mine” and “Everything Changes,” two haymakers that land in the second act. They are, however, in her pop wheelhouse, and she has Mueller to set them ablaze. It’s much trickier to write songs about pregnancy testing kits, even with the support of a female director and book writer, but Bareilles has done it (“The Negative”), and she’s provided some inspired material for the supporting cast to dig into, too. Joe’s advice to Jenna, “Take it From an Old Man,” is lovely–and with the star as an observer and not as a participant, she’s given Fitzgerald and the company a hilariously performed number about endless love, “Never Getting Rid of Me.” Regarding Bareilles, I hope not.

By way of compliment, my wife called Waitress a “chick flick musical”–one we both adored. And, as a bonus, the scent of freshly baked pies wafts through the lobby during intermission, giving the colorfully appointed production a sugar high.

Nominations for the Hamiltons…err, the Tony Awards…were announced yesterday, and I’m fully expecting that juggernaut to equal or surpass the record-breaking 12 Tonys won by The Producers 15 years ago. Hamilton burned through critics organizations like mine, the Drama Desk, last year when it debuted at the Public, but there’s much to consider on, Off, and Off Broadway this year. I’ll be reporting on the final crop of plays and musicals from now until showtime–June 5 for the Drama Desk, and June 12 for the Hamiltons…err, the Tonys.