OnStage New York Critic
I was pretty sure I was going to hate Waitress when I bought my ticket. But I also knew that even if it fulfilled every Broadway musical stereotype, I’d still love it. You can’t have Adrienne Shelly, Sara Bareilles, Jesse Mueller and the first all female creative team in Broadway history behind a show and not love the production.
And I did. I loved the Broadway adaptation of Adrienne Shelly’s sweet film. The production honors her movie, broadcasts her voice to a wider audience and pushes the theatrical community towards gender parity. There are so many things this show does well, but more than anything, there was an element of realness that proved a beautiful contrast to the make-believe and magic that is inherently theatre.
In the world of theatrical props, 99% of the time any food used onstage is fake. In a show that revolves around food and baking, I applaud the production team for using real food not just in sparing moments but throughout the entire show. What they create in this, is the simplest of all theatrical magic. A breath of air into a palm filled with flour is suddenly a breathtaking moment, and one that’s repeated throughout the course of the show. Jenna [Jesse Mueller] softly crooning “Sugar, butter, flour” while she pours real butter, sugar and flour into a bowl, dreaming of new recipes and escaping from reality, is completely captivating.
Long ago, in a beginning acting class, my teacher stressed the importance of being able to focus all your energy into what could be perceived as a mundane activity. Watching someone perform what seems to be a simple task: stirring batter, pouring sugar or pressing a pie crust, can be the most interesting thing you’ve ever seen if the person performing the task has focused all their energy on the task. Mueller does this, and does it in such a way that some of my favorite moments in the show were indeed simply watching her move through the beginning moments of baking. I am so impressed with the production and creative teams’ decision to invite the potential for failure onstage by using and handling real food throughout the course of the show. They deserve kudos and recognition for taking this chance because from an audience perspective it certainly pays off.
The choreography for the show, again falls into this category of realness. At first jarring to me, I quickly came to love it. It’s not standard fare, but felt like the magnification of the million minuscule physical moments we all have in a day. From the brushing away of bangs with a hand covered in flour to the lifting of a coffee cup to lips—these moments are simple, effective and beautifully real. The costume design too was simple, and real, and one of my favorite moments was when Mueller slipped an apron over her costume and turned around to reveal a tiny baby bump that hadn’t been there before. It was a lovely reinforcement of the idea that not everything has to be a big spectacle to be effective.
I’m a sucker for a pit orchestra or band onstage. One of my biggest problems with Broadway musicals is the separation (albeit sometimes born of necessity) of musicians and actors. When a production makes the choice to weave the musicians into the fabric of the performance, I’m over the moon. I didn’t initially know how they’d incorporate the onstage band into the story, but situating them at the upstage right corner of the stage, in what we can imagine to be a corner of Joe’s Diner, where the bulk of the action takes place is a brilliant, bold move. The band disperses as the scenes fade into other settings, but reappear regularly with the rest of the chorus. They’re as much a part of the show, and it felt like a very deliberate statement, a nod—we couldn’t do this without them—was being made by folding them into the show.
As much as this is Mueller’s show, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the show-stealing fella who plays Ogie. Christopher Fitzgerald trots onstage halfway through the first Act and brings down the house with “Never Getting Rid of Me” not because the song he sings is particularly great but because he sings the hell out of it and his comedic timing and physicality is some of the best I’ve ever seen. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard and was so disappointed when he retreated offstage. The rest of the cast is equally engaging, but Mueller and Fitzgerald stand out with their energy, physicality and commitment to character.
Let’s talk about Jesse Mueller. There’s no other actress on Broadway quite like her right now. All she has to do is open her mouth and everything around her (even some terrific supporting cast members) fade into the background. She is so deeply invested in the soul of her character and inhabits the character of Jenna so deeply that she’ll break your heart with a single note, line or look. The significance she places on every line, every moment, every minute of the show is a testament to her unfaltering and admirable commitment. She’s unparalleled. To see her in a role like this, particularly when she splits your heart open with the gorgeous “She Used to Be Mine” is something you don’t want to miss.
I watched the movie again before I saw the show. Watch it before you go because the team does an exquisite job of honoring Shelly’s vision and the tiny moments of beauty lifted from the movie will make you cry with their meaningful placement. Shelly’s s personal story is heartbreaking. This young, talented filmmaker, actress, wife and mother died tragically, the victim of a horrific murder. To watch her in her film, where she plays the sweet, awkward Dawn, is to watch a woman whose career and life should have just been starting with the film and instead ended not long thereafter. The creative team stayed so true to her story that even though the film never brought me to tears, the broadway production sure did.
There’s a lot of Broadway convention in this show, and some of that is unavoidable, but I was rarely bothered. Even though it takes a lot to impress me when it comes to musicals, this one did. There’s so much to love in this show, but when I stood at the end it was for Adrienne Shelly, Jesse Mueller and the first all-female creative team in Broadway history. Not only is Waitress worth the wait, it’s also worth standing up for.