What's Inside 'Waitress'?

William Statham

  • OnStage New York Columnist

Step one foot inside the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway recently and the sweet aroma of homebaked pie instantly ignites the senses. Suddenly you're taken to a place of comfort, home, and mama. You begin to float to your seat and as you gaze at the stage in your olfactory hypnosis, the sight of pies spinning in their display cases catches your eye. And this is all happening before the curtain even goes up on the new musical Waitress, by Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson. 

The musical is based off of the movie of the same name which starred Keri Russell. Jenna (Tony Award-winner Jessie Mueller) lives in a small town. She has two close friends, Becky (Keala Settle) and Dawn (Jenna Ushkowitz). The three work at the town diner and this waiting trio could be considered the Three Musketeers of the dining industry, much to the chagrin of their taskmaster boss (Eric Anderson). The friends help coach each other with their relationship woes, even helping Dawn go on her first date with an eccentric online love connection, Oggie (Jeremy Morse at the performance I attended). Jenna is famously known among her diner patrons for her heavenly delicious original pies. However, we soon learn that Jenna has an unexpected "surprise" of her own baking in the oven. What will Jenna do though? She's not quite ready for the onslaught of new motherhood. Her friends rally around her to try to convince Jenna to face this head on, but she is conflicted; mostly because of her abusive husband Earl (Nick Cordero). The only "babies" Jenna has are her late mother's pie recipes that were handed down to her. 

Photo: Joan Marcus

Photo: Joan Marcus

We soon find out that Joe (Dakin Matthews), the owner of the diner, recently came across a pie contest in the local paper where the grand prize is $20,000. Jenna soon realizes there's a bigger prize at stake here however: freedom from her husband. Before Jenna gets carried away, however, she has to confront her newfound pregnancy. Enter her new gynecologist, Dr, Pomatter (Drew Gehling) a fresh albeit nervous, post-med grad from Connecticut. Things between Jenna and her new doctor are awkward at first, until they have an exchange at a bus stop. A spark is lit and the two cautiously dance around one another each time Jenna has her routine checkups. Each time she comes, she draws him in closer with a new pie, each one more unique than the last. But Dr. Pomatter is married, as is Jenna. As they say, "there's the rub."

Under any other circumstances in this most recent Broadway season, Waitress (without question) would have swept the Tony Awards and all other theatre award ceremonies. There's just that pesky little skit about one of the founding fathers that trumped that. 

There are two important points to be made about Waitress: its message and its significance as a piece of art. So what is the message of this jewel box gem of a production? Jenna has been an unfortunate victim of love her entire life. How? Her father abused her loving mother and didn't show her any love. She lost maternal love when her mother died. She married a man who is obsessed with her but who she, herself, does not love. Love has failed her at every turn. Now comes Dr. Jim Pomatter who is offering her love at last but who cannot fully give her the kind of love she deserves. The message that we get from Jenna's story (and that she thankfully finds for herself) is she must first love herself and that, alone, is more than sufficient. 

What struck me the most about Waitress was how much the show, as a whole, represented one of the primary themes of the show: pie. With Diane Paulus' precision directing and Lorin Latarro's seamlessly fluid choreography, the show was beautifully layered. All of the ingredients came together beautifully from the sweet aroma wafting into the house of the Barrymore to the amazingly talented cast. From the sweet-sounding earthy onstage band that weaved in and out of the story to the gorgeous melodies of Sara Bareilles' score.

As for the cast, special attention must be paid to the brightest star currently lighting up a Broadway stage: Jessie Mueller. Ever since her role in the ill-fated 2011 revival  of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, and going on to star in such shows as her Tony-winning turn as Carole King in Beautiful, Jessie has solidified her place as a bonafide Broadway star. Drew Gehling is the most endearing, honest and heartfelt doctor I've ever seen. His tenderness and awkward vulnerability were such relieving qualities to see in a leading man. The "ooohs" and "awwws" coming from the women in the audience were evidence of their pulling for him to win Jenna's heart the whole performance. Jenna Ushkowitz as the wide-eyed, at times nerdy Dawn was quite a pleasant surprise for someone like me who has only seen one episode of "Glee." She more than holds her own in this cast of dynamites. Jeremy Morse was on as Oggie (normally played by Chris Fitzgerald, who was Tony-nominated for this role) and within ten seconds, you see why. The part (the comedic relief for the show along with his partner Dawn) has a beautifully crafted comedic number staged by Paulus that shows Oggie's exuberance and eagerness to win his true love.Of special note is the incomparable Keala Settle who gave me chills during her Act Two opening power song "I Didn't Plan It," where she explains to Jenna that life doesn't always go as planned but she's made the best of her situation. Keala's fiery conviction and vocal chords of steel drive the song across the footlights and into the audience's lap with enough power to shake the Barrymore walls. Dakin Matthews, as Joe, embraces with his warm soul (albeit initial rough exterior as a curmudgeon) and offers a light fatherly touch that we all can identify with.

The passionate ensemble rounds out the cast of characters of the town and deliver a show that you can serve with a dollop of whipped cream and place a cherry on top. The cast often repeats throughout the night Jenna's three essential ingredients: sugar, butter, flour. I think they should add: passion, talent, heart. 

Why We Will Always Need The Last Five Years

William Statham

  • OnStage New York Columnist

It was announced last week that a special one-night-only benefit concert of Jason Robert Brown's iconic two-person musical, The Last Five Years, would be presented on September 12th at Town Hall in NYC. The production will star recent Tony Award-winner Cynthia Erivo and Tony Award nominee Joshua Henry. Cut to thousands of musical theatre fanatics (myself included) clamoring to find out the nanosecond that tickets would go on sale online. But why? What is it about this show, fifteen years later, that still has people so eager to see any production that pops up?  I even had a musical director friend of mine do the show in Japan to rapturous acclaim that totally sold out its run there. And why this newest concert with two of the hottest musical theatre stars today? Well the answer is simple, somewhat. 

The Last Five Years tells a relatively simple story. It is a typical boy (Jaime) meets girl (Cathy) story, but told forwards and backwards and with a twist. Essentially, Jaime is an aspiring author who is rising to acclaim in the publishing world. Cathy is an actress trying to find her footing as an actress. What makes the story intensely fascinating, however, is that we begin the musical with Cathy's viewpoint at the end of their broken relationship (spoiler alert) and Jaime;s viewpoint at the beginning. It evokes a somewhat Merrily We Roll Along element of musical storytelling, for any Sondheim fanatics out there. But not quite. Remember, not just told backwards as in Merrily, but also forward. At the same time. Genius.
      
Reason number one for this concert: The Brady Center in Washington, D.C. All of the proceeds for the September 12th concert will be going to this organization whose mission it is to implement health and safety programs to reduce gun violence in our country. Given the senseless onslaught of gun violence recently in the last several months and years, the Brady Center is essential to putting an end to such tragic events and ensuring a future in this country of non-violence. 

Reason number two for this concert: Cynthia Erivo and Joshua Henry. Why is this important? Theatre has always held a mirror up to society. Recently, there have been several discussions with the theatre community, especially in NYC, regarding ethnically diverse casting. While this conversation is by no means "new," just like the talks that are ongoing in this country regarding race, they are essential. The very nature of theatre is to make us all realize our universal humanity. Joe Papp, founder of the Public Theater, was a huge proponent of ethnically diverse casting. His philosophy was that if the material and talent is good, people will come. Just take a look at the most successful musical on Broadway right now: Hamilton. A completely diverse casting of African American and Latino American actors and actresses playing our founding fathers and mothers. The lesson again? The people will come. There has been one other instance in which the role of Cathy was played by an African American actress (Wendy Fox) at the African American-based Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, New Jersey in April of 2012. However, once again, the focus of this story is on a relationship. Race is not a factor. If anything, this version with Erivo and Henry will only enhance the story even more by viewing it through a new lens. 

Reason number three:  What really makes this story so appealing is its universality. Any person on the planet can relate to that feeling of sheer joy when falling in love. We can all identify with finding that one person that you believe you will settle down with and live a happy life (whatever one defines that as) in their companionship. What we can also identify with, unfortunately, is heartbreak. Like many relationships, Cathy and Jaime's is not perfect by any means. The cracks and chasms of their bond slowly reveal themselves and what is left is the bare bones of their relationship. Raw. The audience sees a bit of themselves in both Jaime and Cathy.

 I will be attending the concert at Town Hall in September and I, like many others that night, am sure we will be treated to an evening that is nothing short of amazing. A true theatrical event that I'm sure will spawn more concerts, stagings and readings that continually make us rethink established works. I, for one, cannot wait to be a part of that. 

Those Kinky Boots Still Hold Up!

William Statham

  • OnStage New York Columnist

The first time I visited the 6 time Tony Award-winning musical Kinky Boots at the Al Hirschfeld Theater, it was a hot, sticky morning in the dog days of summer in 2013. The musical had just won best score (princess of pop's Cyndi Lauper in her Broadway songwriting debut) and best musical at that year's Tony Awards. The creative team was a home run with Harvey Fierstein writing the book and Jerry Mitchell directing and choreographing. It was all the rage and (next to Matilda) the hottest ticket on Broadway at the time. I woke up at the crack of dawn to be among the lucky members of the rush line to snag a ticket. I naively thought that 7 a.m. was an appropriate hour to arrive on line. I was dead wrong. The line was already halfway down 45th and slowly inching closer and closer to 9th ave. Needless to say, I opted to pay full price for a seat in last row of the orchestra on the far right end. My initial thought of the show: Entertaining? Sure. Groundbreaking? Eh.

Fast forward to this past Monday night, half hour before curtain at Kinky Boots and a line that inched all the way up 45th  and was wrapping around onto 8th Avenue. The lesson learned? The show is still as popular as ever and showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

As with all shows, the initial thought that comes to mind with shows that garner a lot of attention and awards with a definitive cast who delivers magnetic performances is: Who will possibly replace these people? Who is gonna be able to step into these roles and carry the show on to future success? Not all shows manage to survive the crucial period after actors who establish roles and win awards on Broadway finish their contracts and/or move on to bigger and better things. But with Kinky Boots, one thing is clear: the show is clearly the star.

Billy Porter won a Tony Award for his performance as the vivacious Lola. She lets it be known very early on at the beginning of act one to Charlie (originally played by Stark Sands) that she is no transvestite, but a drag queen; and a damn good one at that, as if anyone needed to ask her to explain the difference.

The tricky aspect of Kinky Boots that I noticed in 2013 when I first saw the show and that still rings true today is the beginning of the show. The initial jolt that brings the audience into this world and sets the tone for the show. On a large scale, the show is of course about Lola and Charlie, who is salvaging his father's shoe-making business outside of London just as his father has died. His fiance,Nicola, is desperately seeking a new, secure posh life in London while Charlie is yearning to find himself and his place while staying true to his father's legacy. He also feels the pressure from the factory workers (like an extended family) to save the company, using a new "niche clientele." This is a bit unexpected and less desired by the people of the town and Price & Son's shoe factory. Enter Lola.

However, Lola doesn't appear until several minutes into act one, but once she hits the stage? POW! The audience has it's boot straps on and is ready to strut through the rest of the show. This brings us to the ultimate question. It's been over three years since Kinky Boots hit Broadway. Is the show still holding up? Or are these boots not made for walking anymore. The answer: the sex is most definitely still in the heel and these boots are shiny red and holding up better than ever.

I must admit. On my first visit to the show, I found it to be a little too candy-coated and nicely wrapped. Even a bit semi-preachy. Of course we should accept everyone for who they are and embrace everyone's differences. Duh. But what a minute. Fast forward from the climate of the world (especially in this country) from 2013 to 2016. Look at everything that has happened in terms of gay rights and race relations. Gay marriage is legal now in this country, yet we still have gay bashings in this country that barely reach the evening news. We claim to be so progressive in our race relations and yet we have protests weekly in cities all over the country. Kinky Boots is more necessary and relevant than ever. 

The added element is the tourist factor. While standing outside the Al Hirschfeld Theater on Monday night, one thing was blaring and obvious. Roughly three quarters of this audience (if not more) were tourists! The show has far surpassed just being a hot ticket for the theatre elite and theatregoers of NYC. It's fanned out to middle America, who has finally had the tour reach them and those same audience members are bringing their moms and dads, friends and others to the show when they visit NYC. Maybe we in NYC are open-minded and free thinking. But what about middle America? Kinky Boots is revolutionary in being the show that is finally bridging that societal gap and making people from all walks of life "change the world, when they change their mind."

So just how is this new cast? Stellar. Top to bottom, still. Of special note is a very long, leggy and lanky Alan Mingo, Jr. who's Lola immediately wins you over with the batting of his long eyelashes. With every stinging joke, anecdote or quip that came out of Lola's mouth, there was the fluttering of the eyelashes and there was an instant warmth that exuded forth. The audience immediately fell in love with Lola. There was something amazingly endearing about Alan's "Lola." Incredibly laser-focused and consistent. You constantly felt her cover up when the hurt got too close and became too real. Her humor was her shield against the sting of the ignorant English blokes of the town.

Special recognition should go to Aaron C. Finley, who made his debut as Charlie in the show on Monday night. Great, powerful voice. His big act two soul-searching number, "Soul of a Man," brought down the house. Not only was he great in the role, but he brings forward the deep connection that Lola addresses in the great lyric from the act one duet "Not My Father's Son": "We're the same, Charlie boy, you and me." It still astonishes me that such a true story of a black drag queen and a shoemaker in the rural backyard of London could lead lives that are one and the same essentially. Also of special note are the hilarious Jeanna de Waal as Lauren who totally made the role (originally created by the incomparable comedienne Annaleigh Ashford) her own. The ensemble creates and holds this show together like glue. Each caster member creates a specific and identifiable person of this rural English town and  you feel their cohesive leave. You also see their arc in character and the audience grows and changes with them. They're blue-collar and you can relate with them. That makes us love them all the more.

So for the record: zip up those heels and strut yourself runway-style down to the Al Hirschfeld Theater while Lola and her Angels are still giving Kinky Boots LIFE, as the kids say.

Benj Pasek & Justin Paul: A Rare Partnership

William Cortez-Statham

  • OnStage New York Columnist

On a typical weeknight, just after 6 p.m., I can be found walking down 8th Avenue on my way to Penn Station to head home after a day's work. This also just happens to be the ideal time to stroll through the New York theatre district and take stock of all the luminescent marquees that light up Broadway's most historic houses. It's also prime time to run into Broadway personalities of every ilk in the business; actors, designers, producers, etc. Thus, my latest Broadway "run-in": the very up-and-coming songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. A brief conversation ensued in which I slightly fan-girled (not gonna lie) over my favorite show of their career thus far: the wildly successful Off Broadway run of Dogfight (starring Lindsay Mendez and Tony Award-winner Annaleigh Ashford) that premiered at Second Stage Theatre. I happened to sneak from the administrative offices of Second Stage and walk two doors down to the lobby stairs of the theater to hear the finale song of Act One. I had no idea what I was hearing but knew one fact for sure: this was a new and exciting sound in the musical theatre that I had never heard before. I was intrigued. I was excited. We're talking literal goosebumps all over folks. 

Dogfight

Dogfight

I should note that the term "up-and-coming" should be used very lightly when referring to Pasek and Paul. The two have been around for quite a while at this point and already have one incredibly successful Broadway show under their belt (2012's A Christmas Story: The Musical). I'm still waiting for that one to make a triumphant holiday return. However for those that may not be as familiar with this dynamic duo as of yet, fear not. You will be in the next few months as they prepare to take their wildly successful Off-Broadway hit original musical, Dear Evan Hansen, to the Belasco Theater on Broadway this season. 
 
After speaking with the boys last night, I fell down the rabbit hole, as if often the case when I'm introduced to a new and exciting team of musical theatre writers, of Googling all of their previous projects. This led to endless YouTube videos of songs that I've been in love with for years. Up to this point, I was also familiar with Pasek and Paul from two other instances. The first being several highly addictive songs they wrote for a song cycle that they premiered in 2005 while the two were still undergraduates (Yes, undergrads. Don't you feel a little lazy now...?) at the University of Michigan as musical theatre majors. The piece was called "Edges" and dealt with the hardships of becoming adults. The second instance of course, being the world premiere recording of the touring cast of their Broadway musical A Christmas Story: The Musical, based off of the iconic film of the same name. The show debuted on Broadway to glowing reviews during the holiday season of 2012. 

So what sets Pasek and Paul apart? They represent that very rare breed in the world of contemporary musical theatre writing and that is of the symbiotic composer/lyricist. There are several strong musical theatre composers. Conversely, there are several gifted lyricists. Some artists even manage to be both entities in the body of one person (Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, Lin Manuel-Miranda just to name a few). However, it is somewhat rare to find such a strong partnership in contemporary musical theatre of the Generation Xers. It's a slightly different sound. A more driving, pulsating sound. Pasek and Paul  have mastered that fine line of combining the classic musical theatre and this new sound in their works. They also are so in sync, they finish each other's sentences in interviews and discussions about their work. Their passion for their work and the craft itself shines through and they become positively giddy with glee whenever discussing their writing process. So it is no wonder their work feels so cohesive.

We've had successful writing partnerships in the past in the musical theatre: Rodgers and Hammerstein. Bock and Harnick. Lerner and Lowe. Kander and Ebb. However in later years, most composers "date around" when it comes to finding the perfect collaborator and vice versa. Why? Put simply: it's really difficult. Think of the composer/lyricist relationship as that of a long marriage.

There will be fights. There will be make ups. There must be compromise. And just like in any marriage, the right idea always wins; or at least that's the general gist of it. We have several other incredibly gifted contemporary musical theatre writing teams: Marcy Heisler/Zina Goldrich, Kerrigan/Lowdermilk, Kitt/Yorkey, etc. But I think what sets Benj and Justin apart is their unique style and voice that has one foot in classic musical theatre and one foot in a driving contemporary sound. The result is something fresh, innovative, and satisfying for a MT nerd like myself who thrives 

Their latest venture, Dear Evan Hansen, will be their first fully original musical to date. All of their previous works have been based on either movies or books. The show premiered at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. last summer and was already receiving rumors of a Broadway transfer. Both the D.C., Off-Broadway, and Broadway production are being directed by legendary director, Michael Greif (Rent, If/Then, Next to Normal, Grey Gardens). Buzz for the Broadway production of Dear Evan Hansen already has people whispering "Tony." Time will tell and awards already adorn their walls and shelves but one thing is for sure: these two deserve a major award. 

Shuffle Along, Or The Musical That Should Have Run Longer on Broadway Because It Deserved To...

William Cortez-Statham

  • OnStage New York Columnist

I admit it. This is going to sound somewhat selfish. I own and accept this. That being said, Shuffle Along should have remained open; at least for a little while longer. Let me explain. I fully understand the economy of Broadway. Seventy percent of Broadway is dominated by the almighty tourist dollar. Let's face it: tourists drive the Broadway market. However, every once in a while, there is a show that enters the fold and proudly proclaims, "Damn it, I'm here and I BELONG here to be seen and heard by all!" Shuffle Along was just that show.

In a season that was dominated heavily by the super mega ultimate juggernaut Hamilton and all of the attention that show garnered, other shows became overshadowed. When Shuffle was first announced last year, with its megawatt cast including Tony Award-winners Audra McDonald, Billy Porter, and Brian Stokes Mitchell (not to mention a slew of Tony nominees and some of the most top-notch talent in the Broadway community), many of us in the theatrical community thought to ourselves: This is it! This is the show that will take on Hamilton. Or at the very least, go toe-to-toe artistically and commercially with Hamilton to give it a run for its money. Alas, that ship pulled into dock, dropped anchor for a hot minute, and promptly sailed. But why?...

By all accounts, Shuffle seemed solid. Tony Award-winning director and theatrical visionary George C. Wolfe (Jelly's Last Jam, Angels in America, The Normal Heart, The Wild Party, just to name a few of his masterpieces) was at the helm. I mean, you could create a show just by watching George C. Wolfe explain theatre and wave his hands theatrically about with his passion and zen for the craft.

So what went wrong? Well, a few factors. First and foremost, I've always been skeptical of shows where it almost seems to good to be true. Let me explain. Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell (both of legendary Ragtime fame as one example) onstage again in a new Broadway musical? I mean, come on! But where Shuffle may have faltered was in it's mammoth-like attempt to track the tragic history of its source material from rocket rise to swift fall into virtual oblivion. Add the fact that there was a great attempt at adding a dash of hope into the mix to help elevate the show back into the conscious of a nation who, as we speak, is still battling the same racial walls that existed at the turn of the 20th century and you have a huge undertaking to tackle. A challenge? Yes. Impossible? No.

The opening number leading into the first act was, in my opinion, theatrical perfection. We got to know the leads, we had great show-stopping musical numbers executed by tap hoofers that made the walls of the Music Box Theatre shake with superb choreography by Tony Award-winner, Savion Glover (his best work to date I think). We had a rousing number of hope and ambition that jolted us into intermission. The second act tried to bite off more than it could chew: incredibly ambitious, but a tad meandering in scope. At moments, just glancing at the audience around me, you saw the faces of people who looked like they were trying to sit through a really interesting history lesson and struggling to keep up.

There are two typical reactions when exiting the theatre after a show: Where do we get dinner or drinks? Or...what was that I just witnessed and let's talk about it. Never have I left a show where it continually haunted me for days afterward and consistently left me bewildered; not only by what I witnessed but also by the impending notion that this show may befuddle and irk people. Yes, there were a few cancelled previews. Yes, people in the industry were already speaking of its potential demise. Conversely, however, PEOPLE WERE TALKING nonetheless: myself included. This is certainly more than can be said of most shows currently on Broadway. And not just myself and a select few theatre friends, whose opinions I highly trust. EVERYONE WAS TALKING. 

So back to the question at hand: why did Shuffle close so early? Producer Scott Rudin, in no uncertain terms, blamed a pregnant Audra McDonald. We can go around and around in circles dissecting that situation, but let's not because it is a distraction from real facts. Broadway audiences, as a whole, still are not ready for a musical like Shuffle and like it or not, that affects dollars. Let's remember: this is show BUSINESS, lest we forget. As frustrating as it is, we still want our tap numbers, but we want them light and happy and not moored to high stakes drama. Yes we want our ballads, but not combined with racial politics. We don't want to confront onstage what we are seeing being mirrored back at us when we walk out onto West 45th Street. 

Could Shuffle have run longer? Sure. Would it have been successful financially in doing so? In the long run, no. Was it an artistic success? Absolutely. No question. As I said to several cast members backstage when I saw the show in previews: Thank GOD for this show. It NEEDS to be seen in all its glory on a Broadway stage. Will Shuffle resurface again? At some point, yes. Maybe regionally. In my opinion, with a smaller cast in a more intimate setting. I have very high hopes for it's distant future. But as for those of us who were lucky enough to witness Shuffle Along, we simply wish it hadn't shuffled off so quickly...