Broadway Review: 'Waitress'

Nancy Sasso Janis

  • OnStage Connecticut Critic
  • Connecticut Critics Circle

“Inspired by Adrienne Shelly’s beloved film, ‘Waitress’ is an uplifting new musical celebrating friendship, motherhood and the magic of a well-made pie. Order up!”

New York, NY - It was another great Broadway Experience with the Warner Theatre Center for Arts Education when my soon-to-be college freshman headed to the Big Apple with a group of Performance Lab teens and other theatre friends. The coach bus is always comfortable, the conversations stimulating and who doesn’t love five hours of free time to explore the city on your own. The two of us had lunch at a very crowded Shake Shack, visited both Hershey’s and M&M’s and used my smartphone to find (in the rain) the closest Chipotle for dinner. Northwest Idol runner up CJ Barber and her family went with music director Beckie Wallace and her daughter to visit the Stardust Diner to listen to see waiter Zach Carter of Naugatuck sing during his shift. At the end of the day, our bus driver navigated through a powerful rainstorm to get everyone back to Torrington safely. 

However, the real reason for this trip was to see the hit musical ‘Waitress,’ starring the wonderful Jessie Mueller.

‘Waitress’ is a musical based upon the 2007 film of the same title that was written by Adrienne Shelly. The book for the musical version was written by Jessie Nelson and the music and lyrics were done by Sara Bareilles. The orchestrations were written by Ms. Bareilles along with The (fabulous) Waitress Band and Diane Paulus served as the director. The show is running at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and stars the luminous Ms. Mueller in the role of Jenna the waitress. 

I remembered most of the film version as what WTCAE director Isabel Carrington called “an emotional roller coaster” unfolded on the Broadway stage. It tells the story of Jenna Hunterson, a waitress in a bad marriage who bakes amazing pies with unique names that are sold at the diner where she works. At the insistence of her work friends, Jenna learns that she has unexpectedly become pregnant and she begins an affair with her hunky gynecologist Dr. Jim Pomatter (who was played in the film by the ruggedly handsome Nathan Fillion.) Looking for any way out of what her life has become, she sees a pie contest and its grand prize as her chance.

What I didn’t realize was the fact that the film was written and directed by Ms. Shelley who also appeared in the supporting role of Dawn the waitress. More tragic is the fact that her appearance in the film marked her final appearance before her death. In late 2006 Ms. Shelly was the married mother of an infant daughter and was waiting to see if Waitress would be accepted for the Sundance Film Festival. On November of that year she was found dead, hanging in the shower of her studio apartment in New York. Her husband insisted that it could not have been a suicide and police ultimately arrested an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador who confessed to the killing. Ms. Shelly's husband established the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, which awards scholarships, production grants, finishing funds and living stipends to artists. 

Ms. Mueller is so brilliant in the title role that I can only imagine how beautiful she must have been as Carole King in ‘Beautiful.’ As the other waitresses in the diner, Keala Settle is big and loud and Jenna Ushkowitz (‘Glee,’ of course) is little and geeky, but both made us laugh. 
Drew Gehling is convincing as the hard-to-like husband. Nick Cordero takes on the role of the handsome but unprofessional doctor. Dakin Matthews is spot on as the demanding diner owner with a secret and Eric Anderson is memorable as the man in the kitchen. Jeremy Morse covered for Christopher Fitzgerald as the character (and he is a character) Ogie, who falls in love with the unlikely Dawn. The very young Claire Kean shares the role of Lulu with her sister McKenna and both are just adorable when one appears in the final scene. 

That ‘Waitress Band’ wins the prize for best integration of musicians into the action of a musical. They slid on to the stage on a platform into a back corner of the stage and fit easily into the diner, even with a grand piano. Then some of the members of the band stepped out of the group to be highlighted during a number. It showed such respect for the talented musicians, who include conductor Nadia DeGiallonardo on piano, her associate Adam Michael Kaufman on keyboard, Rich Mercurio on drums, Lee Nadel on bass, Yair Evnine on cello and guitar and Meghan Toohey on guitar. 

I loved the spinning pies under glass that reached all the way up the sides of the stage in the set designed by Scott Pask, and beautiful lighting by Christopher Akerlind made everything look even better. Suttirat Anne Larlarb designed that setting-appropriate costumes. Lorin Latarro was the choreographer. 

Overall, ‘Waitress’ is in fact a drama/comedy that takes the audience on an emotional ride. It would be difficult not to feel sorry for Jenna as she navigates her way out of her awful marriage and I think most of us in the audience were rooting for a happy ending. Waitress is running at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York City.