Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York
Move over Mrs Lovett, there’s a new baker on the block. Waitress, Sara Bareilles’ female-fuelled take on modern Americana, is perhaps the finest example of new musical theatre writing in quite some years.
Drawn from Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 movie, Jessie Mueller is Jenna the titular waitress from a southern USA town, who not only serves tables but also bakes the top-notch pies that make up the diner’s daily specials. Unhappily married to the inadequate and abusive misogynist Earl (covered very well by understudy Ryan Vasquez on the night of this review) Jenna discovers early on in the show that she is pregnant with their unplanned (and, by her, unwanted) child. Following her through the trimesters, the show’s story is strong, engaging and witty and under Diane Paulus’ assured direction, never dissolves into sentimentality.
Jenna’s two fellow waitresses are Dawn and Becky played by Jenna Ushkowitz and Keala Settle respectively, who sustain the momentum with perceptive comic relief. Dawn desperately seeks love, while Becky, a middle aged battle-axe agonising that her breasts may be misshapen whilst trapped in her own sexless marriage, goes on to satisfy her carnal frustrations in a second half surprise. Both supporting women are cleverly sketched out, with the dynamic between all three, as they share their respective anxieties and desires, proving credible, funny and ultimately moving. There should be a mention too for Charity Angél Dawson as Nurse Norma, whose dealings with the complex cavortings at the local surgery make for a witty measured performance.
Setting aside the stereotype of woman as domestic pie-making goddess, the baking analogy makes for a clever conceit. Not just Jenna’s bun in her own oven, but rather the focus on what’s inside a pie – ergo what’s inside a woman – makes for some honest theatre. Jenna’s anguish at her impending motherhood is as contemporary as it is timeless. When Mueller sings What Baking Can Do, we see the lifeline of sanity that baking has thrown to her amidst a life of domestic misery.
If the women are cleverly devised, the men are little more than thinly fleshed out flawed caricatures, with the only admirable man on stage dying before the final curtain. Escaping from Earl’s contempt, Jenna stumbles into an affair with her gynaecologist Dr Pomatter (Drew Gehling). It’s an unlikely liaison, the married Pomatter’s actions being unethical, unprofessional and adulterous, however notwithstanding Pomatter cheating on his wife, the love between the two serves to inspire Jenna in believing that not all men are beasts.
Dawn finds love online with Ogie, a geekish tax auditor who shares her love of history. Little more than a decent if two-dimensional twat, Christopher Fitzgerald nonetheless imbues the role with maniacal energy. Already recognised with various awards and nominations for his performance, Fitzgerald’s fabulous physicality serves the role perfectly and it is a joy to see this gifted performer so perfectly cast.
Bareilles’ writing is a long overdue example of new musical theatre that is imaginative, thought provoking and most of all entertaining. More than just a hardened pie crust hurled at the patriarchy, Waitress is a perfectly baked celebration of womanhood today.
Now booking until June 2017Photo credit: Joan Marcus