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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
But knowing what's right isn't doing what's right and so this star-crossed pair "just keep kissing"— which turns out to be a good idea. That's because the American Repertory Theater's artistic director Diane Paulus is at the helm to once again demonstrate her talent for transforming movies into hit musicals (Finding Neverland, Pippin, Porgy and Bess, Hair). Her adaptation of Adrienne Shelly's 1975 film once again confirms the Paulus flair for remaining true to her source, but adding the necessary ingredients to make it resonate as a crowd-pleasing musical.
Fortunately, Paulus was able to bring Jessie Mueller and the rest of the cast from the Boston tryout along to New York. Mueller, who first made her mark on Broadway in the still running Carole King musical Beautiful, is better than ever. She not only brings her rich voice to the role of the unhappy wife who finds release in inventive pie-baking but creates a believable feet-on-the-ground dreamer. Her fellow waitresses and best friends at Joe's Pie Diner, a little place off Highway 27 that serves 27 different varieties of pie (all Jenna's concoctions) are familiar stereotypes. If that sounds like a fatal flaw, it's not because Kimiko Glenn as Dawn and Keala Settle as Becky unapologetically play their types to the hilt. The same is true of the curmudgeonly but astute Joe as portrayed by Dakin Matthews, especially during a well-deserved second act solo when he urges Jenna to seize her opportunity in "Take it From an Old Man."
Other stereotypes brushed with Paulus's brand of star dust include Cal (Eric Anderson), the Diner cook who happens to be Becky's surprising love interest. Since Waitress is not all sugar and spice and romance but is very much a female self-empowerment story, it also needs an over-the-top- character to lighten things up. While Paulus spices her adaptation with various such touches, she's smartly cast Christopher Fitzgerald as Oglie the other half of yet another romantic subplot. Fitzgerald's Ogie tones down the film's somewhat creepy persona and makes him the perfect mate for Dawn. His hilarious "Never Ever Getting Rid of Me" is one of the funniest numbers and best serves to showcase choreographer Lorin Latarro's otherwise under-utilized talents.
As for the men in Jenna's life, the one she'd like to be rid of and the one she finds irresistible, husband Earl is too unsympathetic for even the terrifically talented Nick Cordero to make his one redemptive scene really work all that well. Drew Gehling plays the ob-gyn Pomatter with enough goofy charm to be far more likable, and his second act "You Matter to Me" duet with Jenna is a true star turn. But Jenna's real trajectory here is to believe enough in herself to have the inevitable happy end take us in a different feel good direction.
Since Cordero played a very endearing romantic lead in Nice Girl last year, and both he and Gehling act and sing well, it might be interesting to have them eventually switch roles. When Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly did this in a 2000 revival of True West , it sold many double sets of tickets.
At any rate, everyone does get a solo in which to shine and the ensemble is smoothly integrated into the action . But the star spotlight belongs to Jessie Mueller. Her "She Used to Be Mine" is the show's one big showstopper. That's not to say that this is a one pony musical. On the contrary, it's a most commendable Broadway debut for singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles. She's not a new Stephen Sondheim nor does she write stick-to-the-ear hummers like Rodgers and Hammerstein. However, her solos, duets and ensemble numbers and her ability to mix pop, country and R&B serve her well. Her lyrics for the most part display a genuine feel for supporting characters and allowing an effortless back and forth between dialogue and singing.
As is typical for Ms. Paulus's productions, Waitress is handsomely and inventively staged, beginning with the pie-covered curtain and proscenium. Scott Pask's scenery accommodates the excellent 7-piece band as well as the ensemble players. Pask's on and off rolling set pieces, beautifully abetted by Christopher Akerlind's lighting, makes for fluid transitions between locations: From the front of Joe's Diner to a bathroom (for "The Negative" a song accompanying Jenna's "pee on a stick" test to find out if she is indeed unhappily pregnant). . to Jenna's depressingly tacky home. . . Doctor Pomatter's waiting room and office. . .a bus stop and the local hospital. Costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb further enhances the authentic period look. No complaints about the sound design and orchestrations (by Jonathan Deans, Barelles and the band respectively), but why not those unsubtle, ugly face mikes which are especially noticeable on Ms. Mueller?
Given the theme and all that pie baking, the success of Waitress would seem to rely heavily on female audiences. Yet, if the largely mixed audience at the matinee I attended, and the enthusiastic whoopin' and yelling by all at the end, are an indication, Waitress might just hit the sweet tooth of both sexes.
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Book by Jessie Nelson
Music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles
Based on the 2007 film by Adrienne Shelley
Directed by Diane Paulus
Choreographer: Lorin Latarro
Cast: Jessie Mueller Jessie Mueller (Jenna), Eric Anderson (Cal), Nick Cordero (Earl), Christopher Fitzgerald (Ogie), Drew Gehling (Dr. Pomatter), Kimiko Glenn (Dawn), Dakin Matthews (Joe), Keala Settle (Becky), Charity Angel Dawson, Thayy Floyd, Molly Hager,Asha Jackson, Jeremy Morse, Morse, Stephany Torns, Ryan Vasquea (Ensemble)
Sets: Scott Pask
Costumes: Suttirat Larlarb
Lighting: Christopher Akerlind
Sound: Jonathan Deans
Wigs and Hair: Rachel Padula Shufelt & Jason Allen
Orchestrations: Sara Bareilles & the Waitress Band
Music Supervision & Arrangements: Nadia DiGiallonardo Stage Manager: Thomas J. Gates Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, 1 intermission
Brook Atkinson Theater, 256 W. 47th Street
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/26 press matinee
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