“It’s amazing what baking can do,” sings Jessie Mueller as Jenna the waitress in one of just two non-Hamilton shows surviving from last season. (The other is School of Rock.) And if “baking,” she also means “the theatre,” then she’s absolutely correct. Seeing Waitress on Broadway this week for my birthday affirmed that.
In short: Jenna is a small-town waitress who happens to have a gift for baking pies. The trouble is that she’s stuck in an abusive marriage and unexpectedly pregnant…until a baking competition offers a $20,000 prize and the potential for a new life. Along the way, she is aided by her friends at the diner (Kimiko Glenn, Keala Settle) as well as the new doctor in town (Drew Gehling). Actually, she and the doctor wind up having an affair. The show is based on a 2007 motion picture.
Famously, the score was entirely done by pop singer Sara Bareilles, who received a Tony Award nomination for her work. Her involvement with the show has been a staple of their marketing campaign, and she makes vocal cameos (pre-recorded) at a few points in the musical. I am in love with Bareilles’s music for Waitress; in fact, it’s a big part of why I wanted to see the show onstage. It’s fresh, it’s catchy, and each number is carefully crafted to reflect the personality of its characters. My favorite songs are “Opening Up” and “Bad Idea,” the opener and closer of Act I, respectively. There is also the 11 o’clock song, “She Used to Be Mine,” but I’ll talk about that at the end.
One of the most interesting aspects of the show is how the ensemble is used: they fill lots of minor roles, but they also serve as a Greek chorus of sorts for the action. The effect works surprisingly well. As for the leading players, they were all perfectly suited to their roles and got great audience reception; at my performance, Kimiko Glenn’s understudy was on, but she did a great job. Another thing Waitress knows how to do is find a balance between comedic and serious moments. You have the ludicrous awkwardness of Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald) and Becky’s take-no-prisoners attitude…and then a scene later, you see Jenna get hit by her husband (Nick Cordero).
Speaking of which, Jessie Mueller gives another electric performance as the main character. She brings such raw emotion and sincerity that I cried at three different times in Act II. “She Used to Be Mine” spoke to me on a profound level as I thought about my own trials and tribulations. Like Jenna, the girl I once was didn’t ask for bad things to happen to her…and both of them escape (and still do) by immersing themselves in their passions.
With any luck, someday I too can achieve my ultimate happiness- and the ones I care about will be right there with me. Waitress was not only a delightful birthday gift, but a reminder of just how spellbinding the arts are for the soul. They don’t even have to be fundamentally perfect; as I’ve heard, “it only takes a taste.”