The musical’s new libretto, written by Jessie Nelson, riffs broadly on Shelly’s quietly poignant storyline and her very human, finely etched characters. The characters, broadened and amped up several notches to register on the large stage of a Broadway house, eventually do endear themselves even if they are just a bit shy of caricature. Singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles’ music and lyrics further perpetuate the broad brush paint job with all the characters getting an exultantly defining number that elucidates their eccentric stories or the turmoil in their minds.
Jenna’s fellow waitresses and best friends are Dawn, a fragile, shy sweetie-pie (Kimiko Glenn, never overdoing the fragility or shyness) and the earthy Becky (Keala Settle, bigger than life with an even bigger voice), who has a dreadfully depressing domestic life. These two both find romance with the least expected—and most irritating—characters: a sexist slob and a stalker—a charming stalker, but a stalker. The former is Cal, the diner’s cook and manager, played with perfectly measured oafish charm by Eric Anderson and the latter, Ogie, whom Christopher Fitzgerald takes to show-stopping heights in his “Never Gonna Get Rid of Me.”
Dawn is allowed to daydream in “When He Sees Me” while Becky movingly defends her romantic choices in “I Didn’t Plan It.” Even Jenna has a lot of explaining to do when she and her unexpected lover—her obstetrician, Dr. Pomatter (played by a sincere Drew Gehling who possesses a powerful pop voice)—sing the aptly titled “Bad Idea” while hotly fondling each other in the examination room. The score’s emotional highlight was Jenna’s song, “She Used to Be Me,” in which she dramatically reveals how far she’s come.
In other words, Nelson and Bareilles have turned Waitress into a boisterous, loveable, but unsubtle musical! Nothing wrong with that.
Dakin Matthews plays Joe, the diner’s owner and a humorously demanding customer. He is Jenna’s constant, if curmudgeonly, support and has the most touching scene, a moment that takes Jenna from leaden depression to floating on air.
The basic diner set by Scott Pask, which morphs smoothly into Jenna’s home, Dr. Pomatter’s office, and a hospital room, is more utilitarian than innovative (although the sweeping panorama backdrop of plains and roads is a little show in itself). Same thing with Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s costumes which clearly and efficiently define the characters. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting works hard and succeeds in glamorizing the sets and helping to create emotional depth, particularly when Jenna is speaking directly to the audience, pondering the perfect recipes for pies that express her loves and hates.
Lorin Latarro’s choreography doesn’t play as big a role in Waitress as in most contemporary musicals, but the evocations of Western and popular dance forms are well-performed by a small, but game chorus who somehow register as individuals.
The onstage band, wittily ensconced in the diner set, was led with catchy energy by Nadia DiGiallonardo, playing orchestrations by Bareilles and The Waitress Band.
Diane Paulus, for once, doesn’t gild the lily with outrageous theatrical gimmickry, instead allowing the libretto and songs to shine through the unadorned, powered by moving performances by the entire talented cast, led by Ms. Mueller’s radiant Jenna.
Waitress (through January 5, 2020)
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 877-250-2929 or visit http://www.Ticketmaster.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission