Review - Waitress With Songs by Sara Bareilles

Broadway-bound musical now showing in Cambridge is a stunner

Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller, and Jeanna de Waal.

Whenever I hear that yet another pop star has decided to write the score for a musical, I sort of cringe. I mean, we've been disappointed so many times before: Sting (The Last Ship), Dolly Parton (9 to 5), Elton John & Bernie Taupin (Lestat), Phil Collins (Tarzan), Dave Stewart (Ghost), Bono & The Edge (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), Gary Barlow & Eliot Kennedy (Finding Neverland). Not a very auspicious lot.

I personally don't even consider Cindi Lauper (Kinky Boots) and Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) to be exceptions to that rule, as neither of those scores is particularly well crafted, although the shows have been financially successful. Having witnessed all of that dreck first-hand, I and many other musical-theater fans have taken to automatically assuming that pop songwriters simply don't have the ability to write effective musical-theater songs.

What a joy it is to be wrong.

Sara Bareilles, where have you been? I pay little attention to popular music, but my sources tell me that Bareilles is a respected singer-songwriter in the Fiona Apple/Ingrid Michaelson mold. Well, consider me a newly converted Bareilles fan. Her score for Waitress, the new Broadway-bound musical currently playing a tryout run at the American Repertory Theatre, is a revelation.

Despite never having composed for the stage before, Bareilles reveals herself here as a musical-theater natural.

First, there's so much heart and honesty in her songs. And unlike the songs to a certain other musical that played the ART recently, these songs are actually firmly tied to the story.

Bareilles writes songs for Waitress that delve deeply into character, that up the dramatic odds, and that give the audience a strong sense of place.

Bareilles doesn’t just write pop songs here; she writes "I want" songs, group numbers, musicalized scenes, and a genuinely kick-ass 11 o'clock number, and yet they all fit within the same pop/country idiom. Bareilles does for Waitress what any of the musical-theater greats would do: she responds to the dramatic needs of the moment, rather than relying on what she's done before.

I did have some minor issues with the score. Having worked in pop music, Bareilles creates lyrics that abound with slant rhyme and reflect the occasional instance of poor scansion. But since the songs were otherwise so strong, and rooted within the needs of the show, I was willing to overlook these minor lapses. Bareilles gives the show a rousing opening number, but the sound mix made it difficult to understand the words, although thankfully that isn't true during the rest of the show. Also, the exuberant opening song feels a bit too upbeat compared to the rest of the show, which while humorous has a very serious slant to it.

Another minor note, Bareilles uses a certain musical motif to indicate when the main character, Jenna, a waitress who also creates delectable pies for the restaurant, is creating a new pie in her head.

The motif starts with “sugar, butter, flour…,” and the interval for "sugar" is the same as the first two notes of that old bubblegum pop hit “Sugar, Sugar" by The Archies. I don't know whether this was conscious, but if it was, it doesn't work. The motif is serious in intent, and such a camp reference would seem to undermine that impetus.

Waitress is based on the 2007 film of the same name, and the show has this quiet simplicity to it. It's really about nothing more than a cluster of sympathetic people trying to live their lives. And yet there's something transcendent about the treatment, particularly in Bareilles's achingly gorgeous music and heartfelt lyrics. I was in tears for much of the show, tears of connection and recognition. Waitress is very much like Once in the sense that both shows are just interested in letting you into the lives of these people.

It's a thrill to see director Diane Paulus return to form with Waitress after the unfortunate debacle that was Finding Neverland. Working here with vastly superior material, Paulus creates a world that feels both intensely real and yet capable of magic. Paulus includes extremely simple but deft staging touches that coalesce to give the production a sense of vibrancy and warmth. No doubt choreographer Chase Brock was a partner in this process, although the Steven Hoggett-esque movement in the opening number seems forced and twee. This dancing qua dancing thankfully disappears, and the production settles into more restrained, naturalistic movement.

The book to Waitress is by screenwriter Jessie Nelson (I Am Sam, Stepmom, The Story of Us, Because I Said So) with an assist from "script consultant" Peter Duchan (Dogfight). Given the maudlin nature of Nelson's cinematic output, I'm thinking that Duchan had a major hand in keeping the show from getting overly saccharine.

It would have been very easy for this story to become lachrymose. Jenna is in an abusive marriage and plans to enter a pie-baking contest and use the prize money to create a new life for her and her unborn child. There's a quiet, heartfelt simplicity to the story, illuminating the profound dignity of the ordinary, and there's genuine poetry in the dialogue. The overall treatment somehow makes even hoary lines like "You are the queen of kindness and goodness” palatable.

Broadway fans will no doubt think I buried the lead here, because one of the main reasons to see this wonderful show is its star, Tony winner Jessie Mueller.

 Well, Mueller fans will be thrilled to know that she is simply astonishing here. But then when is she not, right? I've been blown away time and again by Mueller every time I've seen her on stage, and I've seen most of what she's done in New York (including On a Clear Day You Can See ForeverNice Work If You Can Get ItThe Mystery of Edwin DroodInto the Woods, and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical).

There's something about Jessie Mueller whereby you're automatically on her side the second she steps on stage. She can make nearly any moment heartbreaking; she’s like an empathy machine. The show does a great job of giving every character his or her chance to shine, but it saves the most cathartic songs for Jenna. The song “She Used to Be Mine,” in which Jenna sings to her unborn child about the compromises she's made in her life, received a thunderous ovation both times I saw the show in Cambridge. This was partly due to the stirring nature of the song itself, but also a testament to the monumental talent of Jessie Mueller.

But the show is more than just a showcase for Mueller. Her supporting cast is nearly flawless. Jeanna de Waal as Jenna's coworker Dawn makes for a delightfully nervous comic foil. I am astounded that this is the same woman who so convincingly played the bad girl Chris in the revival of Carrie. I mean, the range on this woman. As Jenna's other coworker, Keala Settle demonstrates that she has one of the most kick-ass belts in the business, but it felt that she was pushing too much for laughs during spoken scenes.

Settle should trust the material more and just let the comedy flow.

As for the men, Drew Gehling is quirky and adorable as Dr. Pomatter, the baby doc with whom Jenna becomes romantically entangled. Jeremy Morse is a delight as the lovable geek who falls in love with Dawn. Joe Tippett is both believably menacing and surprisingly sympathetic as Jenna's brute of a husband. Both Tippett's performance and the writing here give Earl a genuine menace, but we see a compelling portrait of a troubled man versus a two-dimensional villain.

Waitress has already announced a Broadway bow at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, with previews beginning in March 2016. Hopefully Waitress will find the kind of success that smaller musicals have been enjoying on Broadway in recent years, including Fun Home, Once, and Next to Normal.

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Caggiano, Chris. "Review - Waitress With Songs by Sara Bareilles." ThoughtCo, Mar. 26, 2016, Caggiano, Chris. (2016, March 26). Review - Waitress With Songs by Sara Bareilles. Retrieved from Caggiano, Chris. "Review - Waitress With Songs by Sara Bareilles." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 20, 2017).