Noah Golden, Associate CT Critic, Connecticut Critics Circle
Jenna’s pies are made with humble, common ingredients – chocolate, blueberries, sugar, butter, flour – but are elevated by the smart, creative, loving ways she chooses to put them together. That’s true of the musical Jenna stars in, “Waitress,” a Broadway hit whose national tour plays The Bushnell in Hartford June 18-23.
Based on Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film, “Waitress” opened on Broadway in 2016 and has been running ever since (with stars like Jessie Mueller, Keala Settle, Jason Mraz, Katherine McPhee, Shoshana Bean, Gavin Creel, Al Roker and even the show’s composer Sara Bareilles rotating through the show). Despite listening to the soundtrack a few times, I hadn’t actually seen “Waitress” on stage until its stop at The Bushnell.
Did it live up to expectations? Yes, I think so. “Waitress” is a sweet, well-constructed show that leaves you thoroughly entertained without having tread much new ground. But maybe that’s just fine. An apple pie doesn’t need to “tread new ground” to be satisfying.
“Waitress” concerns Jenna (Christine Dwyer), a waitress and pie-baker at Joe’s, a diner in an unnamed, rural Southern town. Stuck in a bad marriage to the dumb, brutish Earl (Jeremy Woodard) – a relationship that all-too closely mirrors the one she grew up in – Jenna’s only real outlet is her baking. Even the companionship of her fellow servers, the sassy Becky (Melody A. Betts) and naïve Dawn (Ephie Aardema), isn’t able to lift Jenna out of her rut. Things go downhill when she becomes pregnant and her new OBGYN Dr. Pomatter (Steven Good) is everything Earl isn’t. It’s not hard to see where “Waitress” heads – should Jenna stay with the devil she knows or embark on an affair with her (married) doctor? And what about that pie-baking contest, held only a few hours away, with a cash prize that could fund a new life far away from Joe’s Diner?
Yes, the story is predictable – but predictably enjoyable – and populated by some wonderfully odd side characters, from the crusty short order cook Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin) to Ogie (Jeremy Morse), the tax auditor and amateur civil war reenactor who doggedly woos waitress Dawn. For a story that could be downright dour, book writer Jessie Nelson keeps things surprisingly light and humor-filled and yet delivers with a few somber, dramatic scenes as well.
But it’s Sara Bareilles’ music and Diane Paulus’ direction that really elevates the material. Bareilles, better known as a pop singer and occasional actress (NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar: Live”), makes a flawless transition to the stage. She’s able to combine a real skill for storytelling into her syncopated, piano-heavy pop sound. Her lyrics are smart and witty, as well as well-tailored to the person singing them (Dawn is all anxious patter while dim Earl gets the score’s clumsiest words), a knack which few hit-makers-turn-theater-composers have. It’s a shame The Bushnell’s sound system made the lyrics often hard to decipher, but slightly muffled audio is a frequent problem in the otherwise beautiful theater. There are some real soundtrack stand-outs too, from “When He Sees Me” to “What Baking Can Do.” It’s a shame she was up against the Goliath that is Lin-Manuel Miranda when Tony time came.
The success of Ms. Bareilles’ score is equaled by Paulus’ direction, which is straight-forward but chock-full of brilliant little touches from having the diner patrons act as a sort of visual Greek chorus to the use (and wildly creative integration of) the small onstage band. She even uses some language from film, “Waitress’” original medium, to create extremely effective on stage flashbacks and montages. Every moment or movement feels thoughtful and precise.
Yet. I can’t help but feel “Waitress’” tone teetered a bit uncomfortably. The cast is talented, beautifully-voiced and fun to watch, but too often they push their performances into caricature. Dawn is a little too unbelievably air-headed while abusive hubby Earl is such a one-dimensional lout in act one that the book’s attempt to humanize him in the second doesn’t work. I’m not too sure Ogie didn’t wander in from a broad, slapstick comedy playing next door, but the human energizer bunny that is Morse is so committed and fun to watch on stage you don’t really care. It almost makes you forget that his stalkery love song leaves a strange taste in your mouth in a post #MeToo society (which is even more puzzling given the all-female creative team). I haven’t seen “Waitress” before, so perhaps those flaws were evident from the beginning. My guess is that over time and on the road, the production has just lost a bit of nuance, an issue that can easily happen without the gaze of a watchful director. Perhaps, too, performing to a theater three times larger than the Broadway house meant playing more broadly to the balcony. It’s not a deal breaker – Dwyer, always terrific, somehow manages an emotionally resonate and powerful showstopper with “She Used To Be Mine” – but it leaves the show not quite a total success.
“Waitress,” at least this production of “Waitress,” may not be as earth-shatteringly delicious as Jenna’s pies, but I can’t say I left Joe’s diner unsatisfied. I can’t remember if Jenna made a key lime pie during the show, but it’s the closest confection I can think of to “Waitress”: a surprisingly sweet dessert given some sour ingredients; a pie that takes skill to make but is easy to eat; a perfectly enjoyable after dinner treat.
“Waitress” runs through June 23rd at The Bushnell in Hartford, CT before moving to Dayton, Ohio. “Waitress” features a score by Sara Bareilles and book by Jessie Nelson, based on the film written by Adrienne Shelly. It is directed by Diane Paulus and features costume design by Suttirat Anne Larlarb, lighting design by Ken Billington, set design by Scott Pask and choreography by Lorin Latarro. The cast includes Christine Dwyer, Ephie Aardema, Melody A. Betts, Steven Good, Jeremy Woodard, Richard Kline, Ryan G. Dunkin and Jeremy Morse with Rheuaume Crenshaw, David Hughey, Rashad Naylor, Adam Levy, Lulu Lloyd, Tatiana Lofton, Gerianne Perez, Brad Standley, Grace Stockdale, Alex Tripp, Kevin Zak and Giuliana Aprile Bartlett.