Arts & Culture · Theater

The New Musical ‘Waitress’— A Bittersweet Slice of Heaven

A few years ago, A.R.T.’s Artistic Director Diane Paulus began thinking about how to bring Waitress to the stage. A theatrical force to be reckoned with, on Broadway as well as in Cambridge, Paulus has proven herself a grand re-imaginer. Her exhilarating revivals of Hair, Porgy & Bess and Pippin garnered soaring reviews, lucrative ticket sales and multiple Tony awards. Last season, she adapted the film Finding Neverland. And, in 2014, she was recognized by TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People.

For Waitress, Paulus approached Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles. “I was certainly interested,” Bareilles admits, “but nervous because it felt like a huge undertaking. I had no experience writing in this format, but my first love was musical theater.” She ended up thriving in the collaborative process. The first number she wrote was “She Used to Be Mine,” a heartbreaking song that Jenna sings about the woman she once was. You can watch a fan’s video of Bareilles performing it live here. You may want to have a tissue ready.

Jessie Nelson, who wrote, directed and produced Corrina, Corrina with Whoopi Goldberg and I Am Sam with Sean Penn, was brought in to pen the musical’s book. Drawing on her own experience carrying trays, she has simultaneously honored and enriched Shelly’s original screenplay. Especially moving is the way she captures Jenna’s relationship with the other waitresses. “It was one of the most unexpectedly meaningful times of my life,” she remembers of her own past. “Because of the camaraderie I felt with the women I worked with — women I normally would never have known.” That sense of sisterhood is front and center both onstage and off.

The cast of Waitress is a drama dream come true. Tony-winner Jessie Mueller plays Jenna as downtrodden and down-to-Earth, but with frequent glimpses of a good soul and the woman she might have been. You ache watching her resist her pending motherhood and desperately try to escape her husband, Earl. And, you share her short-lived moments of joy when she stumbles into a temporary romance or bakes one of her brilliant pies.

And, I ain’t talkin’ about no ordinary pies, sister. Truly, Jenna’s pies deserve their own page in Playbill. From “I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie,” renamed “Bad Baby Pie” for the diner’s specials board (quiche with egg and brie cheese with a smoked ham center) and “I Hate My Husband Pie” (bittersweet chocolate and don’t sweeten it) to the more optimistic “Falling in Love Chocolate Mousse Pie,” “Marshmallow Mermaid Pie” and “Naughty Pumpkin Pie.”

Baking or not, Mueller is well-matched by a fine cast that includes Broadway veterans Joe Tippett as her husband, Drew Gehling as her obstetrician, Jeremy Morse as a relentless suitor, and Keala Settle and Jeanna de Waal as her fellow waitresses at Joe’s Pie Diner. The set is ingenious, transforming with seamless effort from the diner to the doctor’s office, Jenna’s home and a bus stop (Earl won’t let Jenna have a car). The lighting, costumes and choreography are Broadway-ready. That’s no surprise, really. It was announced last week that the show will take its place on the “Great White Way” in Spring 2016.

Waitress was (and is) a wonderful little movie. “Little” in the sense of quiet and intimate, no huge stars, no special effects. It is bittersweet (especially when you think about Shelly’s untimely death), yet it remains a celebration of motherhood and sisterhood, of staying true to yourself or finding yourself again if you’ve lost your way.

Waitress, the musical, brings Jenna’s story to life in a lovely new adaptation that I think Shelly would have appreciated. It honors her memory and her work while bringing its own refreshing take on the material to the stage.

If you’re in New England in the next few weeks, I recommend you treat yourself to Waitress at A.R.T. Otherwise, keep an eye open for its Broadway debut in the coming months. Settle in for a satisfying mix of laughter and tears. Then, I dare you not to crave a piece of pie. In fact, shortly after our trip to the theater, my sister-in-law and I enlisted the aid of my teenage daughter and 8-year old niece to bake “Sister-Cousin Sweet Tooth Pie” (Oreo cookie crust, toll house filling with butterscotch chips and M&M initials on top).

Like Waitress, it was delicious.

IMG_2477The “Sister-Cousin Sweet Tooth Pie” in progress. . .

 

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