The cast and creative team behind Waitress pulls off a rare feat: They give us a big, happy musical comedy that simultaneously manages to push the form in exciting ways. With a hilarious book by Jessie Nelson, a tuneful score by Sara Bareilles, and typically muscular direction by Diane Paulus, Waitress is a definite winner.
Granted, much of that comes from having excellent source material: The show (now making its Broadway debut at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre) is based on the 2007 film by the late Adrienne Shelly. That movie is notable for the way it subtly subverts the romantic comedy formula. Unconditional lifelong monogamy, the knight in shining armor, and the intensity of "true love" are all brought in for questioning in Shelly's funny and perceptive screenplay about a small-town waitress looking for a fresh start. Penning a faithful adaptation, Jessie Nelson transports the playfully transgressive tone of the film to a venue even guiltier of trafficking in unhealthy notions of love and romance: the Broadway stage.
Jenna (Jessie Mueller) works at Joe's Pie Diner where she not only waits tables, but concocts new pie specials every day. She is so talented and inventive that her employer, Joe (Dakin Matthews), thinks she should enter a pie contest. Unfortunately, her husband, Earl (Nick Cordero), refuses to let her. He is so possessive that when he learns that she is pregnant with his child, he admonishes her not to love the baby more than him. Despite (or because of) her husband's jealousy, Jenna begins an affair with Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), her OB/GYN. She is not excited about being a mother and worries about what kind of life she will be able to give her baby.
The earnest anxiety of the story is superbly conveyed through a score by singer-songwriter Bareilles ("Love Song"), who makes an impressive Broadway debut. Her harmonically complex songs are undergirded by a driving beat. Her gorgeous lyrics move the plot forward while deepening the emotional world of the characters, bringing the best of a pop sensibility to musical theater. Throughout, disembodied voices sing the ingredients ("sugar, flour, butter") as Jenna dreams up sweet and savory pies with names like: "My Husband's a Jerk Chicken Pot Pie."
Sipping from coffee mugs, the band floats in and out with the restaurant booths, which are among the few pieces of scenery on tracks. Everything else in Scott Pask's agile set is on castors, which the actors wheel on and off as necessary (Paulus is a master of the seamless transition). Suttirat Anne Larlarb's vibrant costumes help maintain the candy-coated aesthetic of the film, while lighting designer Christopher Akerlind creates some truly stunning sunsets on the big sky painted backdrop. Everything about the design suggests a heightened version of small-town America, somewhere off Highway 27.
Under Paulus' scrupulous and energetic direction, the cast follows suit with larger-than-life characters and accents: Kimiko Glenn and Christopher Fitzgerald have us in hysterics as Dawn and Ogie, a couple of revolutionary war enthusiasts who find each other through an online dating site. Fitzgerald especially wows us with his showmanship in the comic number "Never Ever Getting Rid of Me," in which he is as animated as a Disney cartoon. Keala Settle and Eric Anderson have believable chemistry as waitress Becky and short-order cook Cal. Charity Angél Dawson steals several scenes as the pie-loving Nurse Norma, who always seems to walk into the examining room at the wrong moment.
Leading the company, Jessie Mueller (who won a Tony for Beautiful) once again reminds us why she is one of the most exciting actresses on Broadway: She lends much-needed warmth to a role that was somewhat chilly and armored in the film. Her soulful voice is the ideal instrument for Bareilles' challenging score. She knocks us flat with her breathtaking eleven o'clock number, "She Used to Be Mine," wailing her character's battle cry to reclaim a life that has gotten away from her.
Much of Jenna's pain can be attributed to her unhealthy marriage, a relationship inauspiciously forged by trauma: "I was the only one there for you when your mama died and your old man was piss drunk every night," Earl tells her in a frenzy of emotional blackmail. In his one number, he sings, "Till the sun don't shine / You will still be mine," more a threat than a vow of devotion.
With an imposing frame and wild-eyed sincerity, Cordero valiantly fills out this role that feels sadly underdeveloped for the stage: Even though he's the primary antagonist, Earl disappears for nearly an hour in the middle of the show. When he is around, he's more of a joke than a legitimately menacing figure. It is a baffling neutralization of stakes that should be a lot higher.
Still, in its small way, Waitress serves as a response to the Carousel narrative that you should stay with your partner no matter what because of "Love." It offers a far more mature and nuanced perspective on adult relationships, all while giving us that big happy ending that we crave. That feels like a breath of fresh air in a musical theater where the plots smell increasingly musty.