The sweet story of a sorrowful originator, the soaring melodies of Sara Bareilles, and the soulful voice of Jessie Mueller blend like butter, sugar, and flour. Together they produce a tasty joy-inducing creation that was nominated for four Tony Awards in 2016. Regular readers of this column know I am not the world’s biggest fan of modern day musicals, but I honestly can’t wait to see Waitress again. And I’m not just saying that because the entire theater smells like pie.
The movie on which it is based is among my favorites. It may not possess a philosophical depth worthy of extensive examination, but at its core is some spirited girl-power. I was therefore quite trepidatious when I heard it was coming to Broadway at all much less in musical form. But Bareilles’s music and lyrics along with the book by Jessie Nelson have preserved all of Adrienne Shelly’s original laughs, aches and gentle twists and added an extra layer of celebration in song that — puns aside — hits all the right notes. The numbers are so genuinely stirring, it’s fitting that the cast hosts regular karaoke nights for audience members who want to take a turn singing one. (Remembering my mishap while attempting to replicate Baby’s leap at the end of Dirty Dancing, I refrained.)
In the lead role of Jenna, the unhappy pregnant waitress who escapes into her pie recipes, is Mueller, still with a touch of Carole King in her phrasing. Despite her radiance, the rest of the company is so terrific that she’s in constant danger of being upstaged. Her inappropriate love interest is portrayed with endearing charm by Drew Gehling. The perky Caitlin Houlahan and booming Charity Ang´el Dawson play her two co-workers Dawn and Becky like perfect bookends. Each has a solo that threatens to bring down the house. But it is Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle winner Christopher Fitzgerald as Dawn’s besotted beau Ogie that elicits the loudest round of cheers for his eccentric rhymes and original dance moves.
The team is in the mighty hands of director Diane Paulus, who also steered the Tony winning revival of Pippin. Using Scott Pask’s welcoming diner setting as an anchor, she moves her cast fluidly through their small southern town, adding wonderful touches of physical comedy to each performance. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting and Jonathan Deans’ sound keep the audience focused. (At least that’s why I think I missed seeing an entire band on stage for the first 15 minutes.) Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s costumes are appropriately whimsical.
The inclusion of decidedly PG-13 material causes the show to be a little awkward for some families, but the blend of playfulness indulged and lessons learned makes Waitress a generally appealing choice in these overwhelming times. Tickets for the open-ended run are available at http://www.brooksatkinsontheater.com.