The world premiere of the musical, Waitress, based on the 2007 film of the same name, can best be described as a work in progress. There are many aspects of the production to cheer about, primarily the engaging and fresh score by pop artist Sara Bareilles. The acting corps, led by Jessie Mueller in her first role since winning the Tony Award for Best Actress in a musical for Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, is wonderfully appealing. The problem is the book by Jessie Nelson. It is disjointed and doesn’t fully flesh out the central characters. If its issues can be solved before the Spring 2016 move to Broadway then Waitress could have a secure future.
The story revolves around three waitresses at the Joe’s Pie Diner. Jenna (Jessie Mueller), is a pie-making whiz and in a dead-end marriage. Becky (Keala Settle), is boisterous and never lacking for a wisecrack. Dawn (Jeanna De Waal), is shy, slightly gawky and single. Their boss and short order cook Cal (Eric Anderson) is, on the surface, unappreciative of their hard-working lives, but underneath really does care for his trio of bustling servers (Think of the characters in the 1970’s sitcom, Alice, or the movie the TV show is based on, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore). The focus is on Jenna, depressed and unhappy with her dispiriting life. She soon finds out she is pregnant with her intimidating, slacker husband Earl’s (Joe Tippett) baby and begins an improbable affair with her doctor (Drew Gehling). Will she jettison Earl? Run off with the married physician? Enter the pie-baking contest, which could change her life forever? What about the lives of her waitress colleagues? These are just some of the storylines explored in the musical.
Some of the dramatic threads are more successful then others, which keeps the show from truly becoming a captivating production. The creative team needs to make decisions to strengthen the book even if they might run counter to the plot lines within the movie. For example, Jenna’s relationship with her doctor, which sputters by the musicals end, should have a more satisfying resolution. There is also too much emphasis placed on Dawn and her elfin-like boyfriend and the back story of all the central characters, except Jenna, needs further clarification either in exposition or song.
The one constant is the score by Sara Bareilles, her first for the musical theater. It is contemporary, lively and bright. She has designed lovely, overlapping harmonies that beautifully meld her popular songwriting appeal with traditional Broadway song structures. Some of the unique instrumentation choices and a cappella elements are thoroughly refreshing.
Jessie Mueller leads the strong group of actors. She is vulnerable, full of grit and determined to succeed on her own terms. Her lovely singing voice conveys her pain as well as her triumphs. Her waitressing partners, Keala Settle and Jeanna De Waal, give finely honed performances, but are limited by the cursory dynamics of their character’s narrative. The audience craves more details of their lives. This is the same issue with Eric Anderson and Joe Tippett’s roles, as Cal and Earl respectively. For Joe Tippett’s Dr. Pomatter there is more to grab hold of, but we don’t know the reason for his choices nor what motives him. Can these issues be rectified? They should be able to be solved, which would make the production richer and more fulfilling.
Director Diane Paulus has complete command of the show, which wavers from the full rambunctious glory of scenes in the diner to nerve rattling menace between Jenna’s encounters with husband Earl. The overall tone of the musical, however, is not clearly defined. Sometimes a laugh-out-loud comedy and at other points a tired melodrama, the production would be better focused with a more cohesive approach.
Waitress, now at the American Repetory Theater in Cambridge, MA through September 27th.