With music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, the Broadway musical doesn’t have the same vibe as the movie by Adrienne Shelly. Here, life doesn’t have many uncrimped edges. The show is fairly straightforward – at times even simple – and mixed to convince us everything in the batter will turn out just right. Pies can be a metaphor for life – humble crumble rhubarb, anyone? — or so we learn in “Waitress.”
Interestingly, the scent of baking pies wafts through the theater. Like the movie, “Waitress” focuses on the women who work at Joe’s Pie Diner. They’ve got issues, but when one of Jenna’s pies is served up, all is right with the world.
Jenna (Jessie Mueller) is stuck in an abusive marriage, longing to turn her pies into a way out. When she discovers she’s pregnant, that dream begins to crumble. She meets a doctor, however, who seems to say the right things. In no time at all, they’re in a relationship, wondering how to make sense of a doctor/patient affair that’s wrong on so many levels. At the diner, fellow waitress Dawn (Kimiko Glenn) is pining for love but can’t meet the right guy. With the help of the sassy Becky (Keala Settle), she heads to an online dating service and meets Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald), one of the oddest ducks in the pond.
What starts as a musical with an independent vibe quickly becomes a mainstream musical with a Mayberry bent. Fitzgerald’s laugh magnet acts like he’s clearly someone who spends time in Mount Pilot.
More interesting is Drew Gehling’s Dr. Pomatter. He handles an awkward situation awkwardly and gets great laughs every time. He’s a nice partner for Mueller, who doesn’t have the same drive that Keri Russell exhibited in the film.
Director Diane Paulus is far more mainstream here than she has been in other musicals. She keeps things simple (most of the action takes place in the diner or the doctor’s office) and lets Bareilles’ music handle the nuance. The songs, in fact, are much more sophisticated than the staging or the book. Sung by Mueller, they flow just as freely as the ingredients she puts in her pies. While Mueller doesn’t actually bake a pie on stage, she works with a lot of utensils and gets an extra bump from the names those pastries are given.
Settle is the Flo of the bunch (there are plenty of “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” parallels), finding her own happiness in unusual places. But it’s the offbeat relationship between Mueller and Gehling that provides the most interest. Should a pregnant woman leave her husband for a doctor who seems happily married? The question could fuel plenty of discussion but “Waitress” is a straightforward show, bent on providing happy endings. It has them, all right, complete with a diner wedding and an unexpected white knight.
Nick Cordero is given no outs as the abusive husband (the role is far too one-dimensional for its own good) and Dakin Matthews, as one of the customers, is simply a plot device.
Fitzgerald, though, attracts the most attention because he’s not afraid to overact. He goes for it repeatedly but he doesn’t necessarily fit in the same crust as the others.
No matter. “Waitress” is a feel-good musical that serves its message of empowerment with a whole lot of sugar.