“What if I never see / Myself ever be / something more than what I’ve become.”
In the midst of a peppy, comedic duet between a man and a woman trying to talk themselves into sleeping with one another, suddenly there is this singular moment of beautifully painful self-reflection. The new musical Waitress is filled with these unique moments of darkly crafted dissonance that embrace a melancholic reality amidst the high-shine brightness of musical theatre. The sets, costumes, and setting might suggest a charming rom-com, but as the creators of the show peel back the layers of its characters the truth about their lives proves to be something altogether more serious. The musical manages to be both bittersweet and joyful as it tells the story of a woman in a bad marriage who finds herself again. Jessie Mueller, as your powerhouse secret ingredient, doesn’t hurt either.
Mueller stars as the waitress of the title, Jenna, who sings “sugar, butter, flour,” over and over like a calming mantra. She’s the creator of the pie of the day at the local diner where she works. Whether she’s baking a pie or just dreaming one up, she is often lost in her thoughts. When she stops daydreaming, she has to come to terms with her marriage to the verbally and physically abusive Earl (Nick Cordero). She’s gotten inured to her situation and has numbed herself to everything until she discovers she’s pregnant. She then tries as hard as she can to deny her impending motherhood. But things are going to change for her. For starters she finds herself unexpectedly attracted to her neurotic but kind obstetrician Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling, gangly, goofy, and delightful).
Her best friends, who are also waitresses at the diner, encourage her to leave her husband, because as bad as they see their own stifled lives, they think she has it much worse. Becky (the irrepressible Keala Settle) has a bedridden husband. Dawn (Kimiko Glenn, quirky and darling) is skittish and scared of life but suddenly finds herself getting attention from an unexpected suitor, Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald). All three women want more than what this life has dealt them, but making a change is hard. Admitting you want something means you might not get it, and disappointment is an all too familiar refrain in their lives.
Singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles makes an impressive Broadway debut. Her music and lyrics illustrate the complexities of these women and their relationships. From upbeat ensemble numbers to heart-wrenching laments, Bareilles fills in rich detail for these characters – whether it’s the flirty and fantastic “Bad Idea” which Jenna and Dr. Pomatter sing to each other while chasing each other around his exam room or Jenna’s anguished and beautiful solo number, “She Used to Be Mine,” where Jenna tries to figure out where things went wrong in her life. With lyrics like, “It’s not what I asked for / Sometimes life just slips in through a backdoor / And carves out a person,” Bareilles gets under the skin of the characters and speaks a language that women are often all too familiar with. She captures the needling voice of self-doubt, which cuts away at a person’s confidence. These are not only women we know, but they sing the secret fears we keep in our hearts, too afraid to bring them out in the light.
Much has been made of the fact that this show has an all-female creative team. In addition to Bareilles is Diane Paulus as director, Lorin Latarro as choreographer, and Jessie Nelson as the musical book writer. Together they craft a musical where peeing on a stick and a visit to the gynecologist are NBD and, remarkably, places to insert musical numbers. One should not discount how much the female gaze in the book, music, and lyrics here feels like a tremendous shift. The musical inherits this female-centric perspective because it’s based on the terrific film written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelley. She created these fulsome characters and allowed them to be messy, have their own sexual needs, and not live in a fantasy storybook. The musical thankfully stays true to that endeavor and doubles-down by enriching that story with song.
That said, I struggled with some of Diane Paulus’s directorial choices. Since Jenna daydreams about inventing pies, Paulus and Latarro have the ensemble of dancers swirling and swooping around Jenna. They hand her baking implements, move set pieces, and stand about awkwardly, leading us to wonder why dramaturgically they are there. An argument can be made for Jenna’s being a bit player in her own life as these dancers move her about, but it plays with less intention than that. A poorly-wigged young woman plays Jenna’s mother in fleeting flashbacks which feel too obvious in a show that otherwise trades in careful moments. Sloppy choreography and direction distracts from Mueller and Gehling singing “Bad Idea” where there should be carefully constructed intentional, comedic, awkwardness. Ultimately the music, lyrics and performances are so rich that these nits are minor distractions in an otherwise engaging show.
Mueller moves deftly between the comedy and drama, and of course you want her to have the world with her big sad eyes looking out at you, and with every heartbreak she goes through. You’re with her 100%. Keala Settle delivers Becky’s sassy barbs with show-stopping aplomb. Christopher Fitzgerald nearly steals the whole show with his boisterous physical performance during Ogie’s quasi-stalker song, “Never Getting Rid of Me,” (the one creepy beat from the movie I wished had been changed). I know the idea of a woman having feelings for her gynecologist is on no one’s short list of great musical theater ideas, but Mueller and Gehling have the necessary chemistry to pull it off without a single moment of “ick” (and even a good gag with some OB/GYN stirrups).
Between laughter and tears, this musical offers grown-up women in complicated lives, singing about their hopes, dreams, and struggles. That’s something worth celebrating.
For more information on Waitress, click here.