‘Waitress’ Delivers a Satisfying Musical Theater Treat

Jessie Mueller in “Waitress”
Evgenia Eliseeva
Jessie Mueller in “Waitress”

By Sheila Barth

Published August 28, 2015, issue of August 27, 2015.

American Repertory Theater (ART) is serving up a delicious slice of musical theater through September 27, namely Jessie Nelson’s two-act play, “Waitress.”

ART’s iconic, multi-award winning artistic director Diane Paulus has applied her golden touch and helmed yet another production here that’s heading to Broadway, following the path of “Porgy and Bess,” “Pippin,” and “Finding Neverland.” “Waitress” is slated to be part of Broadway’s 2015-16 season and will open in April 2016 at Manhattan’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Casting hasn’t been announced yet, but ART’s superlative cast, especially Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller in the lead role of Jenna, would shine as brightly on Broadway as she does in Cambridge. Mueller, who hails from a family of actors in suburban Chicago, won the Tony Award for her stirring portrayal of Carole King in “Beautiful.”

Co-star Jeanna de Waal, a native Londoner, has blazed her own trail on Broadway. She originated the role of Mary Barrie in “Finding Neverland,” and portrayed Lauren in “Kinky Boots” on Broadway, where she intends to return after ART. Not to be overlooked is bombastic Keala Settle, another veteran/Broadway actress, in the role of crusty, flippant waitress Becky, who dishes out heaping portions of humor and pathos. Together, they represent hard-working, hard-living women, whose lives are flawed, but who share a touching camaraderie and sisterhood.

Male co-star Drew Gehling, portraying Jenna’s awkward obstetrician and love interest, Dr. Pomatter, adds warmth and laughter, as does Dakin Matthews as crabby diner owner Joe, and effervescent Jeremy Morse, portraying Dawn’s geeky-but-sweet boyfriend, Ogie. Joe Tippett portraying Jenna’s abusive husband, Earl, and Eric Anderson as mouthy diner chef Cal effectively add their own realistic dark brand.

The story is based on author Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 successful movie, starring Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion. Unfortunately, Shelly’s personal story is tragic. According to news reports, Shelly was murdered in her apartment November 1, 2006, by an illegal 19-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant whom she caught stealing from her pocketbook. In the movie, Shelly portrayed a shy, self-conscious waitress, Dawn. Her young daughter, Sophie, also appeared in the film. Paulus was convinced “Waitress” could be transformed into a musical, so she enlisted singer-writer Sara Bareilles to write the lyrics and score, which is garnering accolades.

Although the play is set in Joe’s Pie Diner, everything about it is strictly gourmet, starting with Broadway set designer Scott Pask’s fluted crust-framed, criss-crossed cherry pie curtain to his greasy spoon diner, with its movable tables, ladies’ bathroom, obstetrician’s waiting, examining, and delivery rooms, and waitress Jenna’s modest abode she shares with her abusive husband, Earl.

Paulus also enlisted her Broadway-“Finding Neverland” costume designer Suttirat Larlarb, lighting designer Kenneth Posner, and sound designer Jonathan Deans, who enhance the production. And Conductor Nadia DiGiallonardo at the piano and her fantastic musicians provide ample portions of superb orchestration.

Basically, everyone in “Waitress” has his/her own problems. Although Jenna is the diner’s superlative piemaker/creator, her home life is in tatters. Her husband Earl is boorish, takes her tip money, and knocks her around, but tells her he loves her. Jenna is grateful Earl took her in and married her when she had nowhere else to go, but she’s had a bellyful of abuse. Now that she’s pregnant, she doesn’t want his baby, but won’t abort the child.

Jenna falls in love with her handsome, self-conscious obstetrician, Dr. Pomatter, who returns her love. Together, Mueller and Gehling have charming chemistry; but he’s not entirely honest.

With old Joe’s advice and help, Jenna faces self-realization in a moving “She Used to Be Me.” Dawn is convinced nobody will ever love her, so she takes a stab at trying to meet somebody via the internet. Up pops tax auditor, Ogie. The two share lots in common, and he’s smitten, singing “You’re Never Getting Rid of Me.” The only off-putting song title is Ogie’s “I Love You Like A Table,” which Morse delivers so affectionately, it doesn’t matter.

Becky’s life is tough, too, with her very ill husband, whom she cares for after working all day. Cal’s wife is gay, so the inevitable occurs between these two adversaries. They find fleeting solace in each other.

Although “Waitress” isn’t your typical feel-good musical, it’s uplifting and high-spirited. Don’t miss it.

The world premiere of the musical “Waitress” (book by Jessie Nelson and music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, directed by multi-award winning ART artistic director Diane Paulus) will appear through September 27 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Harvard Square, Cambridge. Recommended for eighth-graders and older because of strong language, spousal abuse and sexual themes. Tickets start at $25.

For performance times and more information, call 617-547-8300 or visit americanrepertorytheatre.org.

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