ART's "Waitress": Life-Depends-on-How-You-Slice-It Pie

Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller & Jeanna de Waal in "Waitress"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

The poignancy (and promise) of the opening song “What's Inside” from the new ART musical “Waitress” says it all: “sugar...butter...flour”, a phrase that is to be repeated until the revelation of its origin in the early life of the titular piesmith. These, and a pinch of love, are all the ingredients she kneads. Based on the small but widely beloved 2007 film of the same name, on the surface, it's a tale about the hard work of being a waitress (though both social and gratifying) in a “small town off Highway 27”, in the present. When this production's Director Diane Paulus experienced the film, she saw that its “story could sing” with “a score that could capture the unique tone of the film...whimsical, quirky and deeply emotional”. The choice of the already successful young composer and performer, Sara Bareilles (composer of pop songs “Love Song” and “Brave”), was a natural one. Book writer Jessie Nelson resonates with women seeing a character “extricating herself from a relationship in which she had had to diminish herself in order to survive it”. In the program notes, Alison Owings describes from her study “Hey, Waitress!” that waitresses are symbolic of both upward (a sign of hope) and downward (a warning sign) mobility, the “virgin chroniclers and commentators of our time...from the other side of the tray”. But this is just the framework for its story of friendship, motherhood, the strength and courage to recapture a dream long ago shelved, and above all, sisterhood (embodying and celebrating female spirit). Enlisting Bareilles was an inspiration.

As was the casting of Jessie Mueller (Tony-winner for “Beautiful”) as Jenna, the deeply flawed but soulful woman, pained and broken by a loveless marriage, “used by a man who can't love”, Earl (Joe Tippett), who prefers to possess rather than love, and sees that “so much is happening, mostly to (him)”. Jenna's work at the diner owned by elderly curmudgeon Joe (Dakin Matthews), specifically baking wittily-named pies, is her sole remaining source of pride and usefulness. She also finds more emotional connection in the workplace, in the persons of Becky (Keala Settle) and Dawn (Jeanna de Waal), and even their boss Cal (Eric Anderson). The arrival in town of a new handsome obstetrician, Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), complicates matters, to say the least. As does the sudden appearance of the slightly daft “mad stalking elf” Ogie (Jeremy Morse), a suitor to Dawn. That's it for the principals in the cast, supported by an ensemble in several supporting roles, and a child actress (Giana Ribeiro at the performance attended in a role shared with Addison Oken). It's a wonderful troupe, with each given her or his chance to steal the spotlight. Matthews is particularly memorable, matched by the antics of Settle, de Waal and Morse (especially with his dance moves), as well as the menacing presence of Tippett and the hilarious Gehling. But it's Mueller's show, and she, and the score by Bareilles, (and of course Paulus) are its stars.

Mueller captures the soul of her character, “messy but kind, lonely most of the time”, and has stated elsewhere that “life is like a pie...you have to have a sturdy, flaky, buttery crust in order to hold your filling”, and that one shouldn't be afraid of the vulnerability that often accompanies strength. She fills the first act with her longing, and the second act with her gradual awakening to the possible, especially in the number “She Used to Be Mine” (“a part of you that doesn't recognize who you are anymore...I don't recognize me...she is good but she lies, she is hard on herself, mixed up, nasty but kind”). It's another award-worthy turn, both for Mueller and for Bareilles (whose eighteen numbers include such profound lyrics as “like some stranger you recognize”). They're totally believable whether in the complex first act (captured in the daily pie title “life is a rocky road pie”) or in the changed tone of the second act (finally symbolized in the day's pie title “Joe's heavenly chocolate pie”). There is always a tinge of tartness, as when Cal, when asked by Jenna if he's happy, answers “happy enough”, just as Jenna is moving forward, as Bareilles puts it, having to be her “own island...to exist”, comfortable with being alone. Nelson keeps the libretto close to the original source material, while making the men in the story (except for Tippett's heavy) less stereotypical and much more endearing. It's still quite a moving anthem for female empowerment, but somehow manages to be so without marginalizing the testosterone, more grounded in a much more complicated context than in the original film.

It's a bittersweet story and score, with impeccable direction by Paulus and fine Choreography by Chase Brock. The remainder of the creative team is the same group that enlivened the company's production last season of “Finding Neverland”: Scenic Design by Scott Pask (even more ingenious this time around), Costume Design by Suttirat Larlarb (who rightly says that a costume should be “an extension of character behavior”), Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner and Sound Design by Jonathan Deans. The Musical Supervision is by Nadia diGiallonardo (drums, pedal steel, guitar, cellos and keyboard), and it's here that the show is less than an immaculate confection; in the first act especially, the sound needs balance, for too much of the lyrical gets lost in the shuffle. It's less of an issue in the second act, which consists of more ballads (and thus less percussion).

The combination of a strong libretto, a lovely score, unforgettable performances and just plain heartfelt sentiment (not sentimentality) make this a true winner, a real keeper. There's scant little to change in a successful recipe like this one. As the production stands now, it shows a great deal of promise, and not the kind referred to in “The Music Man”: “a pie-crust promise, easily made, easily broken”. Bareilles notes that the creative team was “making something from a place of love”, adding that it's the only way she ever wants to bake. May the already-announced move to Broadway never crimp her style, may she and this cast persist with their flakiness, and may that be the very last of one's pie-centric puns.

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