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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 24, 2016

Waitress Book by Jessie Nelson. Music & lyrics by Sara Bareilles. Based upon the motion picture written by Adrienne Shelly. Director Diane Paulus. Choreographer Lorin Latarro. Music supervision & arrangements by Nadia DiGiallonardo. Orchestrations by Sara Bareilles & The Waitress Band. Set design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Suttirat Anne Larlarb. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Sound design by Jonathan Deans. Wig & make up design by Rachel Padula Shufelt & Jason Allen. Cast: Jessie Mueller, Keala Settle, Kimiko Glenn, with Drew Gehling, Nick Cordero, Dakin Matthews, Eric Anderson, and Christopher Fitzgerald, Charity Angél Dawson, Thay Floyd, Henry Gottfried, Molly Hager, Aisha Jackson, Claire Keane, McKenna Keane, Max Kumangai, Jeremy Morse, Ragan Pharris, Stephanie Torns, Ryan Vasquez.
Theatre: Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Jessie Mueller with Keala Settle and Kimiko Glenn
Photo by Joan Marcus

Sensory and emotional overload—to say nothing of mere engagement—are rare occurrences these days at the Brooks Atkinson, where the new musical Waitress just opened, but when they hit, they hit hard. The biggest instance doesn't so much smack you over the head as it does snake its way into your nostrils—at the moment you walk into the theater, no less. It's... pie. Any kind of pie. Every kind of pie! Blueberry, apple, and peach, with perhaps a tinge of chocolate underneath. And are those notes of sugary butter and cinnamon wafting in just behind? With each step you take toward your seat, and each millisecond that passes before the curtain (depicting an endless expanse of lush, sensual latticed cherry!) rises, you're assaulted in the most enveloping and gloriously maddening way possible.

Savor those aromas while you can, because they are about all that this underbaked musical gets definitively right. The rest of the time, librettist Jessie Nelson, songwriter Sara Bareilles, and director Diane Paulus struggle mightily with such elemental theatrical-cooking concepts as ingredients, blending, and seasoning, resulting in a show that, if not necessarily tasteless, is unquestionably flavorless.

Like Bright Star (which opened last month) and American Psycho (which opened earlier this week), Waitress suffers from inexperienced hands treating musical-making as if it's no different from any other writing form. Bareilles is a justified indie-pop sensation who shot to fame in 2007 with her second album, Little Voice, and especially its headlining track, "Love Song," but she treats plot and character writing with the same limited scope and reach she does a pop single. She's not interested in plumbing feelings, particularizing people, or testing the boundaries of how music lands on the ear; she sticks with what she knows and squishes the show around to match. And though Nelson has some theatrical experience and her book is adequate, it lacks any defining spark or originality.

Register this, sadly, as one of the greatest missed opportunities of the season, as the delightful 2007 film on which this show is based seemed ripe for musicalization. Though it attracted headlines for murder of its writer, director, and supporting star, Adrienne Shelly, it stands on its own as a low-key, feminist-empowerment charmer that knows which buttons to push without making you feel it's pushing any. It tells the story of Jenna, who bakes and serves tantalizing confections at the aptly named Joe's Pie Diner, and who, after learning she's pregnant and fearing the worst for her child, seeks escape from her brutish husband, Earl. Whether it comes by way of her handsome new gynecologist or the big-money baking contest a few towns over, she doesn't care. And, thanks to breezy wit of Shelly's script and the shimmering, understated star turn by Keri Russell, neither did you.

The musical, however, which stars Jessie Mueller (who won a Tony for playing Carole King in Beautiful), fails to generate the same piping-hot good feelings by simultaneously trying too hard and not trying hard enough. It's populated with ghostly memories of Jenna's unhappy upbringing that seep into various songs about the crazy recipes Jenna constructs (Betrayed By My Eggs Pie! My Husband's a Jerk Chicken Pot Pie! White Knuckle Cream Pie! I Wanna Play Doctor With My Gynecologist Pie!), which is derivative enough. Sprinkle on Jenna's coworkers Becky (Keala Settle), a sassy black woman; Dawn (Kimiko Glenn), the comically nerdy wallflower who naturally must find sweeping romantic happiness; and Cal (Eric Anderson), the gruff chef with a heart-softening secret, and you're hardly better off.

Jessie Mueller with Drew Gehling
Photo by Joan Marcus

Most of these archetypes were present in the film, but better cloaked and underplayed, and unquestionably more realistic. It's a neophyte mistake to flatten characters out onstage; the songs are what should give them dimension and color, not be ornamental or merely descriptive. But Bareilles's numbers stick around the surface, with the likes of the plodding opener ("Opening Up"), a dopey pregnancy test song ("The Negative"), and the too-on-the-nose "What Baking Can Do" getting things off to a weak start. The show's idea of comedy is making brain-dead "endearing" in the form of Dawn's dimwitted beau, Ogie (the always-excellent Christopher Fitzgerald), whose "Never Ever Getting Rid of Me" and "I Love You Like a Table" say nothing, but with lots of (misplaced) energy. Jenna and the doctor (Drew Gehling) get it on over the predictable "Bad Idea," and spout platitudes that coalesce into their, uh, big second-act duet, "You Matter to Me."

Bareilles's songs, which were orchestrated by Bareilles and the six-piece (senselessly onstage) band operating under Nadia DiGiallonardo's blasé musical direction, aren't terrible, but they are terrible theatre music that lack the distinctiveness and verve that make show tunes special. Compositions in this context need to give the actors something to sink their teeth into, not sit on top of, but no song here gives its performer anywhere to go with it. The most crushing blow is Jenna's would-be 11-o'clock show-stopper titled (sigh) "Everything Changes," which ends hopelessly with: "What I thought was so permanent fades / In the blink of an eye / There's a new life in front of my face / And I know in due time every right thing will find its right place / So I swear I'll remember to say we were both / Born today / Cause everything's changed / Everything changes."

It's not Mueller's fault she can't make this work, but she's nonetheless miscast, with her slightly off-kilter streetwise attitude forever tangling with the earnest-but-trapped Jenna. Worse, Mueller's voice is constantly at odds with the music: She's often pulled so far into her head voice (by Bareilles, who employs that style for herself but doesn't know how to adapt it for someone with a markedly different timber) that she stumbles at giving much of the music even a general emotional anchor. Much of the rest of her material lands as monotonous, pseudo-country twang, which gives her no room to either charm or blow the roof off (which she proved herself capable of doing in the 2011 revisal of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever). Mueller, or anyone who creates a part, deserves better.

Gehling plays Jenna's white-knight doctor as both a comic heavy and an emotional lightweight, which ensures the character is underequipped to believably release Jenna from her invisible shackles. Settle and Glenn give their roles their all, but can't create sparks from them. Anderson and Dakin Matthews, who plays the deceptively well-meaning pie shop owner, Joe, come closer, but are saddled with the weakest material of any of the principles. Nick Cordero brings a smidgen of recognizable honesty to Earl—no mean feat given how cartoonishly evil he's made to be (his threatening "You Will Still Be Mine" is the sole song that generates even a modicum of tension). Only Fitzgerald, though saddled in the worst, broadest part in the show, brings life to his character, which you'd expect from a song-and-dance comedian as gifted as he.

Fitzgerald just knows what to do, but no one else's instincts are as sure. Many songs are poorly spotted, and other obvious choices are ignored altogether. (The doctor first trying Jenna's pie—no euphemism intended—doesn't rate an "I-love-this-dessert-and-now-I-love-this-girl" rhapsody?) Paulus's direction is fluid but watery, Lorin Latarro's choreography is at once energetic and listless, and the design (Scott Pask on sets, Suttirat Anne Larlarb on costumes, and Christopher Akerlind on lights) looks drab and cheap, as though it wants to scream the South without letting anyone actually hear it.

We must not forget the evening's true breakout star. Stacy Donnelly is billed in tiny type in the back of the Playbill as "Pie Consultant," and her contributions—which, aside from those heavenly initial smells, are so numerous onstage that they almost form their own crusty chorus—are transporting enough to warrant above-the-title treatment. I admit it: They compelled me to buy a thick slice of Dutch Apple from my local bakery immediately after the curtain fell. Sugary? Yes. Fatty? Yes. But it went down a lot easier than Waitress did.

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