Fan Service Omitted: WAITRESS, A NEW MUSICAL

Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller, and Jeanna de Waal in Waitress. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller, and Jeanna de Waal in Waitress. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Presented by American Repertory Theater
Book by Jessie Nelson
Music & lyrics by Sara Bareilles
Based on the motion picture by Adrienne Shelly
Directed by Diane Paulus
Music direction by Nadia DiGiallonardo
Choreography by Chase Brock

Production is partnered with Harvard University’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response.

August 2, 2015 – September 27, 2015
Loeb Drama Center
Cambridge, MA
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Review by Kitty Drexel

(Cambridge, MA) Waitress the musical is an interpretation of the 2007 movie written and directed by Adrienne Shelly. It is beloved by a devoted fan base. Appeasing this fan base is a tall order. The A.R.T. does a good job of remaining true to Shelly’s masterwork. There are many hits and only one notable miss. 

Waitress is about pie-guru Jenna Hunterson (Jessie Mueller). In a Cinderella meets Homer’s The Odyssey story, we find that Jenna’s been knocked up with a baby she doesn’t want by her abusive, no-good husband Earl (Joe Tippett). She divides her time between work at Joe’s Pie Diner, her friendship with co-waitresses Becky (Keala Settle) and Dawn (Jeanna De Waal), and an affair with Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling). On the surface, this is a musical about survival, friendship, and pie. Under the surface, it is about regular people making bad choices until they decide to do better.

Mueller is refreshingly unrelatable as Jenna. We sympathize with her struggle but we don’t identify with her broken existence. Mueller has a strong, clear voice that cuts through the room like a knife. It is comparable in timbre to composer Sara Bareilles’ own singing voice.

This production could have been whitewashed. It mostly is. Yet, A.R.T. gives us a POC best friend. Keala Settle gives an incomparable performance as Becky. Settle could give epiphanic depth to the most bland of taxation documents.  

Joe Tippett as Earl is detestable. All of the men in Waitress have severe boundary issues but Earl in particular puts shivers down my back. In comparison, Cal, the callous cook played by Eric Anderson, seems like the more sensible choice. Cal is not on any planet a sensible choice.

Bareilles’ score is the breakaway star of the production. It is gorgeous: highly singable, and chock full of glorious dissonances that bleed into siren-like consonances. The harmonies are heart melting in Bareilles’ signature style and just catchy enough for short-term memory permanence. Although the ensemble experiences several moments of dubious diction that reduce the impact of the lyrics, the composition remains true. Fans of Bareilles’ popular music will be blown away by what she delivers.

Waitress the musical does not feature movie fan favorite “The Pie Song (Baby Don’t You Cry).” Quincy Coleman’s recording at the end of the movie was so popular that, even though movie execs hadn’t planned on releasing an MP3, demand required that it be sold on iTunes anyway. This lack does not diminish the musical’s value, credibility, etc. but it is a shame. “The Pie Song” made Waitress uniquely lovable. It is a core element of the movie’s identity. That it is missing from the score (for whatever reason) means the musical’s homage to the movie is incomplete. We can only surmise that this is yet another way in which the A.R.T. dismisses its community even as it delivers an excellent production (None of the actors in the production are local. Graduates of the A.R.T. Institute must move to NYC in order to get cast in their productions.).

Adrienne Shelly was brutally murdered before the premiere of her movie. Jenna survived domestic violence. If you need help, please seek it. Janedoe.org is an excellent resource for assault and abuse survivors. Organizations such as The Network/La Red is a site for all who identify across the gender spectrum. Men can find male-specific resources here. You are not alone.  

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