I am not convinced a Broadway theater has ever smelled better than the Brooks Atkinson currently does. To set the scene for Waitress, the Broadway musical based on Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 movie of the same name, an actual apple pie is slowly cooked in an oven near the theater’s entrance throughout the performance. As a result, the building smells heavenly, and you can even purchase your own mini pie as a snack if you wish (and you’ll wish).
Waitress opened on Broadway in March and tells the story of Jenna (Tony-winner Jessie Mueller), a waitress and skilled pie baker working at a nondescript diner in the south. Stuck in an abusive marriage to her husband, Earl (William Popp), Jenna channels all of her emotions and frustrations into creating uniquely named and flavored, consistently delicious pies, all while leaning on her co-workers and friends Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) and Dawn (Caitlin Houlahan). When she discovers she’s pregnant, she focuses her energy on saving up the entry fee for a nearby pie contest with a grand prize that would be big enough for her to run away and start a new life with her baby. Along the way, she begins an affair with her married OB/GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), which only complicates the situation more. There are also subplots involving Becky and Dawn’s own searches for love, with their co-worker Cal (Eric Anderson) and an online beau Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald), respectively.
This show made history for being the first Broadway musical with an all-female primary creative team: it’s directed by Tony-winner Diane Paulus with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, book by Jessie Nelson, and choreography by Lorin Latarro. As a fan of Bareilles’s music, I was delighted and impressed by her first Broadway score. From the joyful opener “What’s Inside,” (the refrain “sugar, butter, flour” will remain in your head for days) to the sassy “Bad Idea” to the eleven o’clock showstopper “She Used to Be Mine” that left many eyes, including mine, teary, there are a lot of memorable songs to love.
Mueller’s casting makes perfect sense because her voice, which is not what you typically think of when you hear musical theater, lends itself beautifully to the romantic, whimsical, bohemian feel of Bareilles’s music. She is scheduled to play her final show on March 26th and I urge you to catch the performance that would have surely earned her a second Tony Award in a slightly less competitive year while you can. In addition to the fact that she is on the stage for about 90% of the musical, Mueller creates such a three-dimensional, flawed, realistic, raw character, all while belting her heart out. “She’s imperfect, but she tries. She is good, but she lies…she is messy, but she’s kind,” she sings in “She Used to Be Mine,” which is so poignant not only because it is a beautifully written song, but because when she sings it, Mueller has spent the past two hours making Jenna all of those things and more.
The only issue I have with Waitress is the way it mostly glosses over the issue of domestic violence that is so central to Jenna’s story. I felt very uncomfortable when moments in Earl’s big act one song, “You Will Still Be Mine,” (note the clever way those song titles relate) were played for laughs, and while we see Jenna nursing an injured wrist, the actual abuse is mostly hidden away in subtext. It feels like an effort was made to make the show more family-friendly, but doing so created a troubling tone that almost made light of a very serious issue. Some of my fears were assuaged by some course correction in act two, however, and the audience applauded enthusiastically when Jenna finally put Earl in his place.
What’s refreshing about Waitress is that it’s not a typical love story. Yes, Jenna certainly finds some morally questionable romance that helps her gain much-needed self confidence, and Dawn and Ogie live out a much more traditional, cute version of falling in love in their subplot, but the real love story here is between Jenna and herself and, eventually, her baby. It’s empowering, it’s sweet, it’s surprisingly moving, it’s charming, and, as Jenna sings, it’s “all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie.”
Waitress is currently playing on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. For details and ticket information, click here. A national tour is scheduled to launch this October in Cleveland.