By Sandi Durell
Jessie Mueller can turn mud into sweet sugary pies and she’s doing it now at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre as Jenna, the abused pregnant wife of a lout of a husband (Nick Cordero), working at Joe’s Pie Diner. Based on Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 movie, this poor thing learned way back, from her Mom (also married to a drunk no-gooder) that “Sugar, butter, flour” can heal the daily unhappiness as she dreams about leaving her terrible marriage, winning $20,000 in a Best Pie contest, and starting a new life in this charming musical written by pop singer-songwriter, composer-lyricist Sara Bareilles.
The pop score, with book by Jessie Nelson, doesn’t send you out humming anything in particular but does give a big shout-out to the empowerment of women, especially with its all-female team. Director Diane Paulus and choreographer Lorin Latarro serve up a lot of sweets in the form of whimsical pies that Jenna creates daily and names based upon her mood. There’s a whole lotta baking going on as the diner team of waitresses, sassy mouthed Becky (a big voiced Keala Settle) and mousy Dawn (baby-cutsey Kimiko Glenn) and ensemble move those pie stacking units and baking tables in and out while the flour flies.
The waitresses are bonded in their varying levels of unhappiness as they dreamily sing and bake “A Soft Place to Land.” The girls are many times caught in the cliché of pushing the comedy buttons as Becky unleashes her wild, ornery side with the Diner manager Cal (a loveable but impatient Eric Anderson) in a romantic attraction (“I Didn’t Plan It”), and retiring, nerdy Dawn finds love online with Ogie (a real scene stealing, larger than life Christopher Fitzgerald) as he stalks his way into her heart “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.”
Jenna falls for her married gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (a sweetly romantic silly Drew Gehling, with a great tenor range) as they hold their awkward trysts in his office and are all over each other under the watchful, knowing eye of Nurse Norma (Charity Angel Dawson).
Old cantankerous diner owner Joe (perfectly played by Dakin Matthews) sees it all as he knowingly mentions Jenna’s on-going plights each time she waits on him – and it’s only she whom he allows to take his order, with a tomato on the side on a separate plate!
Jessie Mueller gives a star performance, not a surprise as the 2014 Tony Award winner in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, as she emotionally embodies Jenna, her pain, her desires and dreams. Act 2 is just one of her shining moments when she brings a tear to the eye and more with the gut-wrenching “She Used to Be Mine.” Hers is the most developed of all the characters, her nuanced performance rising significantly with Diane Paulus’ direction.
Nick Cordero is just the kind of guy you love to hate as the tip-stealing lout of a husband.
And you’re just gonna love the names of all those emotionally driven pies!
The scenic design is by Scott Pask, with costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlarb, lighting by Christopher Akerlind and sound by Jonathan Deans. Music Supervision and arrangements: Nadia DiGiallonardo.
Ensemble cast members include: Thay Floyd, Molly Hager, Aisha Jackson, Jeremy Morse, Ragan Pharris, Stephanie Torns, Ryan Vasquez.
Waitress the Musical – Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47 Street, NYC – 2 hours, 30 minutes
Photos: Joan Marcus