Yes, that is the smell of freshly-baked pie wafting through the lobby of the Brooks Atkinson Theater. And yes, you will have a delicious time at “Waitress,” a new musical that opened this past Sunday, based on the 2007 movie of the same name. With music and lyrics by pop superstar Sara Bareilles and direction by theatrical superstar Diane Paulus — the pair team up in one of the first all-female creative teams in Broadway history — this new musical was satisfying, spirit-lifting and downright hilarious.
The show begins with a melodic mantra of “sugar, butter, flour,” which provides solace to Jenna (Jessie Mueller). Jenna works as a waitress at a Southern diner, finding strength in baking her cleverly named and well-loved pies. When she learns that she is pregnant with the child of her abusive husband Earl (Nick Cordero), Jenna is faced with a difficult dilemma. Enter Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), Jenna’s tall, dark and handsome gynecologist. They fall into an affair, complicating her pregnancy even further.
Jenna’s support system comes in the form of two fellow waitresses: Dawn (Kimiko Glenn) and Becky (Keala Settle). Both women have their own storylines and romantic trysts: the former with Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald), whose song “Never Ever Getting Rid Of Me” is a comedic tour de force; and the latter with Cal (Eric Anderson), the owner of the diner. The strong vocals Glenn brings to Dawn and Settle’s physical comedy makes them both memorable and lovable characters. Mueller’s prowess is evident as she grounds “Waitress” in empathetic excellence. Her uber-naturalistic and beautifully nuanced acting is only complemented by powerhouse vocals which shine in her heartbreaking 11 o’clock number “She Used To Be Mine.” Mueller presents the difficult choices this woman has to make while avoiding emotional exaggeration, and it’s clear that having Mueller back on Broadway is a gift.
Bareilles’ witty lyrics and infectious melodies are one of the strongest elements of the show. The singer-songwriter’s simple chord progressions pull at the heartstrings. The book by Jessie Nelson is also impressively funny, fitting Bareilles’ score well. Set design by Scott Pask is dreamy and flexible, framed by two towering, rotating glass cases filled with pies.
At times, the sweetness in “Waitress” can err on the side of cloying; stylized ensemble moments at times feel reminiscent of show choir, and some of the supporting characters have trouble distancing themselves from stereotypes. However, the joy and buoyancy of this piece is unbeatable, especially when it’s folded in with the bold flavor of feminist theater-making. The strength and struggles of the women onstage, including the tricky dynamics of abusive relationships and seemingly unattainable autonomy, provides a vessel of empowerment for not only the characters, but the actors. The artistic hand of female creators is clear in this piece and makes a mark on Broadway that demands female voices to be heard, both onstage and off. With this driving force serving as an undercurrent to the narrative onstage, “Waitress” reminds us of our ability to lift one another up and find the magic in friendship, motherhood and even a piece of pie.
“Waitress” is currently playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W 47th St.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, May 2 print edition. Email Emma Gold at [email protected]