For those who doubt that there is such a thing as Love at First Sight, see WAITRESS at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
It proves that in at least one instance, it does happen.
This truth isn’t revealed any earlier in the 2016 musical than it was in the 2007 film on which it’s based. But it does occur just before another potent message comes our way, one that makes us cheer for Jenna Hunterson, the long-suffering server and baker extraordinaire at Joe’s Pie Diner.
Until them, however, too much of Jessie Nelson’s libretto is silly and inconsequential and simply not as good as Adrienne Shelly’s film. Sara Bareilles’s score, although sounding right for the characters, doesn’t make enough of an impression, either.
Jessie Mueller gives that same little embarrassed laugh that she used to better advantage as Carole King in her Tony-winning performance in BEAUTIFUL. She won’t win this time out, and not because she’s suddenly lost any of her abilities. Although Mueller is able to look average in a role that requires it, she remains far more than above average in talent.
Still, memorable musicals tend to be about Big Characters: Dolly, Mame, Evita and Jesus Christ were so larger-than-life that their musicals had to use their names in the title. Here the show is not called JENNA but WAITRESS, suggesting a generic character who isn’t potent enough to power a musical. Mueller’s character isn’t riveting enough, much as the actress tries to make her galvanizing. Because Mueller’s profile resembles Judy Garland’s, she almost seems as if she has Dorothy Gale’s wan life after the kid stupidly left Oz as a celebrity and is now back in Kansas waiting tables (although the show instead takes place in some Southern state).
Jenna’s one saving grace is her ability to mix-and-match atypical ingredients and somehow make delicious pies from them. These sweet things are her own brand of folk art. Whenever Jenna expresses her creativity in whipping up a new pie recipe and baking it to fruition, Bareilles has her melodies soar. Otherwise, the music’s bland.
There is one wonderful fringe benefit of working at Joe’s: Becky (a solid Keala Settle) and Dawn (a too-broad Kimiko Green) are the type of co-workers we’d love to have in our lives, for these three really care about each other. Too bad that their boss Cal (a by-the-book Eric Anderson) would have been right at home in Nazi headquarters.
Becky’s referencing Picasso and getting off a New Jersey joke both seem beyond her ken … or did screenwriter-director Shelly and now Nelson want to teach us that the average waitress is smarter than we think? Point well taken; maybe we need to be reminded that America isn’t simply blue-state: smart, red-state: stupid. Shelly gave us Southern characters that are brighter than the ones in the PORKYS franchise, and for the most part, Nelson’s kept them that way.
She only fails with Dawn and Ogie (the reliable Christopher Fitzgerald), the customer who admires her so much that he’s cozy close to a stalker. They weren’t amazingly full-bodied in the film, but they had enough humanity to come across as real people and not musical comedy stereotypes. Glenn is asked to play Dawn as a non-stop eccentric in hopes of spurring laughs. Ogie has Fitzgerald doing a dance number that makes the poor soul look overly ridiculous. To Nelson’s credit, however, she did give the couple Something in Common (which Shelly did not) that helps the relationship solidify.
And yet, musicals also tend to do better when they deal with Big Events as well: The French Student Revolution, The Fall of Saigon, The Destruction of the World Orchestrated by a Voracious Plant. Here Jenna is unhappily married to Earl and soon starts an affair with her gynecologist, Dr. Jim Pomatter. But as Rick says in CASABLANCA, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” So early on we wonder – and doubt – if WAITRESS can overcome its seemingly trite setup.
Earl (the effective Nick Cordero) is a redneck, but compared to the ones we usually meet in this neck of the woods, he’s pretty sensitive. Unlike many fictional men who’ve grown up below the Mason-Dixon Line, he’s not remotely afraid to give his wife the more-than-occasional endearment: “Hey, sweet thing!” He’s inclined to demonstratively say time and time again how much she means to him or how fervently he loves her.
Still, he’s too doltish to notice that his wife is unhappy. And when he says “How are we doing today?” he isn’t delivering a warm greeting but a euphemism for “How much money did you make today — and whatever it is, hand it over.” Earl has complete control of the couple’s finances and doles out the dollars as he sees fit; he’s the boss “in my house.” That’s no way for a marriage to work, but at least the music avoids the scene in the film when he actually hits Jenna.
At one point, however, he carries her off over his shoulder in a style first known to cavemen. Mueller’s entire torso is flat against his back – but she raises her head and looks directly into the eyes of audience members as if to say “Help me! Please!” As the scene ends, the applause that the audience has been enthusiastically giving during each fade-to-black doesn’t happen. If anyone did start clapping, he’d almost sound as if he approved of what Earl was doing; hence, the silence.
Then there’s Earl’s possessiveness. Considering that he admits he doesn’t want Jenna to love their impending baby more than he, imagine how he’ll feel when he learns that she’s having an affair (which is, as Jenna admits in Bareilles’ best lyric, “a pretty good bad idea”).
Here comes another “And yet.” Considering the type of husband that a man is groomed to be in this part of the world, Earl’s a comparative pearl. One could argue that someone from Jenna’s economic background would expect a husband to be exactly as (or worse than) Earl is. Many women in her position might well be very satisfied with a man who could lay down the sugar along with the law. At least Nelson gives us reason why Jenna initially fell in love with him: “I,” he says, “was the one who was there for you when your mother was sick and your father was fallen down drunk.”
But when a husband or wife has mentally said goodbye, he or she won’t give a second’s worth of a second chance to the spouse.
We have to wonder, though, about Jenna’s falling for the first new face in town. The film made Dr. Jim Pomatter shy and tentative, but Drew Gehling is asked to play Dr. Dork. Well into the show he tells Jenna “I’m neurotic. You calm me down.” That’s not what we’ve seen; he continues to be nervous, clumsy and much more manic than the appealing Nathan Fillion was in the film. Jim’s immaturity here causes us to suspect that Jenna’s attracted to him because she’s on the rebound.
And why does Jim fall for Jenna? Aside from that you-calm-me-down statement, what really seems to make him swoon is each of her magnificent pies. So will Jenna simply become his baker? Does he “love” her for the right reasons? Given that his wife – yes, there’s a wife – is a doctor that these two would have empathetic to excellent conversations that only two people who work in the same field could have. They would undoubtedly have more pith than the stop-and-start superficial conversations that Jenna and Jim muddle through.
But hold on: just when WAITRESS seems trite, it goes into a completely different direction and comes to a conclusion that many spouses and singles need to hear. A plot that seemed destined to paint itself into a corner suddenly finds a wide window from which it can both bring in some very fresh air and allow an escape.
If only the show had a better score. Bareilles shows her limitations as a musical theater writer in Jim’s “You Matter to Me” – and not just because the title is an obvious one. Jim hails from Connecticut, but Bareilles gives him the same ol’ country sound that she’s applied to Deep South natives. Too bad she didn’t listen carefully to HAIRSPRAY, where composer Marc Shaiman made everyone sound ‘60s except Edna and Wilbur when they had their big number “You’re Timeless to Me” – which was very ‘40s. Bareilles needs to learn that one musical size does NOT fit all musical theater characters.
Her lyrics are usually but not always trite; who’d expect that a six-word title would have “I Love You” followed by “Like a Table”? Jenna’s opening number, “What’s Inside” isn’t just about pie ingredients, but what’s eating her. Nice.
Director Diane Paulus does go for radical visuals. Seven actors who are supposed to be unseen often hand props to Jenna. The result is a strange but effective type of choreography — and more compelling that the actual dances than Lorin Latarro has provided. Watching these seven is mesmerizing even if that runs the risk of taking us out of the plot. Because costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb dresses them in the same type of clothes as the rural Southern duds, think of this as bunraku without the black.
That Paulus places the musicians on stage is regrettable, for they intrude Scott Pask’s acceptable set. But that’s not the saddest aspect of Paulus’ direction. She’s staged much of it so farcically that near the end, when theatergoers should be taking matters seriously, they instead laugh. This is the inevitable result of giving any audience members too much broad comedy early on; they eventually take the show away from the creators and cast.
At least they stop when they see the two nice moments at the finish. Otherwise, many would have been inclined to say “Check, please!” before intermission.