Friday, April 29, 2016

'Waitress' is only half baked

I don’t know if a comparable term to chick flick exists in theatre, but if it does it could be applied to Waitress, the new Broadway musical starring Jessie Mueller. Based on the hit 2007 indie film, the show at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre offers heavy-duty female bonding, along with songs about pregnancy tests, getting knocked-up and online dating, as well as a joke about pap smears.

“I’ve got to get out of here before I die of estrogen asphyxiation,” says Cal (Eric Anderson), boss of the three devoted-to-each-other waitresses at Joe’s Pie Diner.

Besides being the theatrical equivalent of a click flick, Waitress, under the direction of Diane Paulus and with a book by Jessie Nelson, is a theatrical sit-com. Jenna (Mueller) is a waitress who creates heavenly pies with names like Deep Dish Blueberry Bacon, and who is stuck in a loveless marriage to the oafish Earl (Nick Cordero). When she finds herself pregnant with a baby she doesn’t want, along with the husband she no longer wants, her sisterhood of waitresses — Becky (Keala Settle) and Dawn (Kimiko Glenn) — offer advice and support. And she also develops a new dessert — Betrayed By My Eggs Pie.

You’ve met her sidekicks in plenty of TV series — the wise-cracking, plus-size Becky who complains that one of her boobs is sagging lower than the other, making her look “like something Picasso would have created,” and Dawn, the skinny little bespeckled spinster mouse who lives alone and eats frozen dinners until she meets the man of her dreams, a fellow history buff played with zest by Christopher Fitzgerald.

It’s a cute story but with its heavy reliance on sit-com humor and stereotypical characters it doesn’t offer enough to sustain its length of two hours and 35 minutes.

Sara Bareilles’ music is jaunty, but her lyrics are often hard to understand, especially when sung by Mueller. I have talked to quite a few people who also had trouble catching the words. I don’t know if something was wrong with the sound system or with the enunciation from Mueller, who was terrific as Carole King in Beautiful, for which she won a Best Actress in a Musical Tony Award.

Along with its chick flick and sit-com leanings, Waitress is also a rom-com. Jenna and her married OB/GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), have a fling, although it’s certainly not romantic, nor is it convincing. They have no chemistry.

Not convincing, unfortunately, is what I felt about most of Mueller’s performance. She seemed to be going through the motions of Jenna’s life rather than inhabiting her the way she did Carole King. Her pie-making as well as her lovemaking looked mechanical rather than dreamlike or exciting.

But Jenna will triumph as sit-com, rom-com, chick flick character always do. That’s not giving away the ending. You already know the genre.

The dance numbers, choreographed by Lorin Latarro, were bland, but Scott Pask’s set was nice, a cozy southern diner where it would be fun to stop in for a piece of pie and some gossip with the girls. In fact, you might want to head out for pie right after the show because the producers have real pies baking out of sight in the theatre to enhance the mood. At least that was authentic.

Waitress has been nominated as Best Musical of 2015 by Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and the Drama League. It comes to Broadway following a sold-out limited engagement at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA.

In the opening number the staff sings of “days like this we can only do the best we can. . . then we do it again.” That pretty well sums up the spirit of the show, carrying on because it had to but without much spark or creativity. Had this musical opened last season with competition like Hamilton, Something Rotten and An American in Paris I don’t think it would have received many nominations.

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