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A wistful and winning Waitress
Review by Rob Lester


DMI Soundtracks

"Cozy" is not an adjective I'd expect to be using to describe the recording of a new Broadway score. However, some of what we hear in the case of Waitress—especially its early tracks—invites that word choice. With its composer-lyricist Sara Bareilles, a fine pop singer herself who knows her way around a recording studio and tender songs that can soothe and combine ear-inviting sound combinations, maybe we should not be surprised. The sensibilities and style of what she's written makes this particular endeavor's listening experience feel not so far afield from a nice pop disc designed for repeated hearings.

There's an intimacy on some of these tracks. Oh, sure, the comic relief numbers have more of an old school stage-bound feel and, as the drama builds to its climax, we get a dynamic 11 o'clock number ("She Used to Be Mine") where the titular character asserts herself and our star, Jessie Mueller, gives a performance that brings tingles to the spine. But elsewhere, when things are laid back, the soothing sounds of the ensemble's echoing and layered vocals wrap around us with the best of pleasingly cushioned sounds that knowing voices and hands in a recording studio can bring and polish.

Bareilles, who has produced her own recordings, including Kaleidoscope, produced the album along with with Neal Avron. Billed as "co-producer" here is Nadia DiGiallonardo, the show's pianist/music director. And they all appear on the composer-lyricist's own studio album of songs from Waitress, with Avron playing cello there. The cast album has just six musicians: the aforementioned pianist, guitarist-cellist Yair Evnine (guitar on Bareilles' disc), drummer Rich Mercurio, and bassist Lee Nadel (both appear on both discs), and two people not on the other: keyboardist Jamie Edwards and guitarist Meghan Toohey. While a live musical is another animal, the earlier studio album is a good listen.

No overture here. Our very able star, who channeled Carole King's lively rock 'n' roll energies playing the role of that singer-songwriter in Broadway's Beautiful, starts gently here. The first 21 words we hear Jessie Mueller, as our main character Jenna, sing so sweetly are various combinations of just three distinct words which are the ingredients of the pies her character excels at making: "sugar" and "butter" and "flour." Soon the ensemble is mixing in their repeated soft, sweet lines of "Ooh" and "What's inside?" and that coziness sets the tone. Musically, perhaps it's the aural equivalent of the comfort food that homemade pies can be.

Baking here is calming, reciting the recipes and accompanying tasks a kind of mantra and zen discipline. This is reinforced in Mueller's similarly functioning, soon-to-come "What Baking Can Do" where the enveloping chorus expands its rapturous repertoire to echo that last word with many a line of "Do, do, do" along with a little more "Oooh." And, in between, we hear the pleasantries exchanged by grateful customers and friendly staff as the diner is "Opening Up" for the day brings more of a home-away-from-home relaxed graciousness. Overlapping and repeating lines of small talk makes for a cheery group number that brings us into the day-to-day workplace world. Though busy, it doesn't have the franticness of The Pajama Game's "Racing with the Clock" or the brisk unison of the employees singing "Thank you, madam, please call again ..." in She Loves Me.

Jessie Mueller brings her fine singing skills that seem as natural as breathing, never slick or show-offy. And, as evidenced here, it appears to be a seamless extension of her acting. Jenna anxiously learning the results of a pregnancy test is musicalized in "The Negative," which begins with the less than elegantly poetic line from Jessie Nelson's script, about what to do with the kit's stick, perhaps the first song since Urinetown to make peeing so dramatically high-stakes. The song is also about the relationship Jenna has with her two co-workers, who lend support here and throughout.

Keala Settle is Becky, the solid, down-to-earth one, and later shines big-time with the gutsy showstopper defending and justifying her own personal life's choice, "I Didn't Plan It." Kimiko Glenn is endearing as the oh-so awkward and inhibited Dawn, urged to have a social life. Her nerdy beau Ogie is played by musical comedy ace Christopher Fitzgerald, and he nails his character's glib and goofy equivalent of Gypsy's "You'll Never Get Away from Me" called "Never Ever Getting Rid of Me," wherein he swears, "I will never let you let me leave." Dawn's early lighthearted moments and her later blushing interaction with Ogie provide the needed laughs in what becomes an increasingly serious state of affairs (in both senses of the word) with other characters.

Other musical/dramatic/relationship moments command Jenna's attention in song form as she must interact with her husband Earl, who is an abusive guy, and Dr. Pomatter, the married gynecologist she consults with and then falls for. Playing the doctor with a nicely rounded characterization, Drew Gehling sings attractively in his prominent role of a knight in shining armor, here to sweep the maiden in distress away. Or will he? While Earl is "known" to the listener by reputation, we only hear Nick Cordero as a presence on one rather brief track, the musical piece being far more low-key than we might have anticipated: "You Will Still Be Mine," the ironically titled number of a song he once wrote for her. It includes some false rhymes, which I wish I could say are probably intentionally placed to be evidence of an amateur songwriter. Alas, false rhymes crop up too often in other numbers, along with the "cheat" of begrudgingly rhymed sounds that also force an unnaturally emphasized syllable. This mars an otherwise skillful set of lyrics that flow naturally from characters and illuminate them and their situations.

The heart of this musical—and it has a big heart without being an airbrushed valentine—is in the heartfelt performance of the very likeable Jessie Mueller playing a very likeable and worth-rooting-for woman. The cast is rounded out by Dakin Matthews and Eric Anderson and the ten-person ensemble—and, in the denouement, the (unheard) child born to our lead waitress. The booklet includes a picture of this adorable tot and many other full-color photos of the production and cast, along with all the lyrics, and plot points summed up in between them. Also, there's a humble and gracious page of comments by first-time musical theatre writer Bareilles, and the recording is dedicated to the late Adrienne Shelly, who wrote the same-titled film the musical is based upon.

While not a typical or titanic type of musical theatre—it tends to musically glide more than soar with its more subtle persuasive attractions—the cast album is quite pleasing.

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