In my review of the 2015 world premiere of Waitress at the American Repertory Theater, I wrote that the show lacked depth and emotional texture and that there was nothing beyond the show’s light and airy meringue.
While I do promise to avoid bad pie puns this time around, I am happy to report that the show is in much better shape than it was two and a half years ago. Still playing to near-capacity houses on Broadway, the work that went into the show during the seven-month period of time between its A.R.T. run and Broadway opening have improved the show in every conceivable way.
Based on Adrienne Shelly’s sweet 2007 film, Waitress tells the story of Jenna (Desi Oakley), waitress and wizard of pies, who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant with the child of her abusive boyfriend, Earl (Nick Bailey). Her love of baking was passed down to her by her mother, and it seems that she’s also inherited her mother’s penchant for losers. She’s been numb to life for a long time and she is right on track to repeat her mother’s mistakes.
Buoyed by her fellow waitresses and only friends Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) and Becky (Charity Angél Dawson), Jenna bides her time and considers her options in the weeks before she begins to show.
Jenna begins to have an affair with her goofy, handsome gynecologist (Bryan Fenkart), which further muddles her already forlorn mental state. But things begin to look up for her when she finds out about an upcoming pie contest—the prize money would be enough to allow her to finally leave Earl.
Even if most of the show’s characters are stereotypes, the musical functions as an entertaining and—dare I say—inspiring modern-day fairy tale. The book, by I Am Sam screenwriter Jessie Nelson, was the biggest detriment to Waitress last time I saw it, but it has improved substantially even if it still occasionally resorts to cliche.
Sara Bareilles’ score remains a mixed bag. At best an impressive musical theater debut and at worst forgettable, her songs have an unmistakable Bareilles flair with an astute affection for the art form for which she is writing.
Waitress made history for being the first Broadway musical with an all-female creative team, yet for all of the show’s defiant girl power, I still find it problematic that Jenna’s way of escape ultimately ends up being through another man.
The show still isn’t perfect, but director Diane Paulus has seen to it that Waitress has been gratifyingly finessed into an honest-to-goodness slice of musical theater heaven (sorry). It manages to be both hugely moving and wildly funny, a deeply satisfying confection from the heart.
WAITRESS. THROUGH 3.4 AT BOSTON OPERA HOUSE, 539 WASHINGTON ST., BOSTON. NATIONAL TOUR THROUGH 8.26. BOSTON.BROADWAY.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.