By Tulis McCall
All roads lead to Cambridge. Or should I say all roads lead FROM Cambridge. American Repertory Theater in Cambridge already has a path strewn with successful productions that have transplanted themselves handsomely into New York (Pippin, FInding Neverland, Once, The Glass Menagerie). Waitress – written by Jessie Nelson and with Music and Lyrics by Sara Bareilles – is soon to follow. The current production that just opened is ripe and juicy and so very close to being ready to harvest.
Based on the 2007 film by the same name (written by Adrienne Shelly) Waitress is the story of – surprise – a waitress. Jenna (Jessie Mueller) works in one of those diners to which we have all been. She wears a blue uniform and crepe shoes. Food is referred to by code: Table 3 wants a cowboy with spurs, hold the ham, hold the salt, hold the butter, and hold me back. The women – and yes it is an all female staff – carry plates stacked up on their arms in twos and threes. She shares the home away from home with the other waitresses Becky (Keala Settle) who has been around the block more than a few times, and Dawn (jeanne De Waal) who might have trouble defining what a block is if she were hard pressed to do so. The owner of the diner Joe (Dakin Matthew) stops in for a daily dose of human kindness because he has none to give. The cook, Cal (Eric Anderson) is like his cooking equipment – worn, noisy and sturdy.
But the star of the diner is the daily pie that Jenna creates: Deep Dish Blueberry Bacon; Bad Baby Quiche Pie – the names and ideas flow out of Jenna as she puts one foot in front of another just to get through the day. And at the end of the day she goes home to Earl (Joe Tippett) who is a coulda-been from way back, and as a result is reckless and abusive. When she discovers she is pregnant from a night she didn’t mean to happen she thinks of a pie called “I Don’t Want To Have A Baby With Earl” pie.
Jenna’s entire focus is on staying sane and in one piece. Like a lot of women her life is made up of all the daily tasks and little more. She depends on her job for money and for friendship. It is all she has to lean on. Until she becomes pregnant, and then life takes a whole new turn. First in the form of a sparkling performance by Drew Gehling and Dr. Pomatter, Jenna’s OB-GYN who sees her with new eyes and causes her to do the same. One thing leads to another and, well, the table in the doctor’s office gets a workout.
There are subplots galore in this production, which tend to dilute the journey and may be jettisoned or trimmed a bit. Dawn finds true love and Becky takes a romantic detour as well. The constant is old Joe who is given a gorgeous ballad, Take It From An Old Man, that he sings while leading Jenna in a sweet two-step. It is a quiet show stopper. Equally powerful at the other end of the scale is She Used to Be Mine, Jenna’s lament about her life and self.
As a mater of fact I heard both these songs sung by their creator Sara Bareilles on Prairie Home Companion. Her performance of her own work was so thrilling that I had to go see this show for myself. Bareilles, like her colleague Lin-Manuel Miranda, has a vast range. Her music is nothing short of exquisite. Nelson’s book does a spectacular job of addressing the many issues and complicated layers. The performances, lead by Mueller, are perfection. The orchestra is glorious, (although the balance between the musicians and the performers is on need of tweaking). This production is a sweet pleasure start to finish.
Waitress is a brave work that pulls away the curtain on what it is to be a woman living a life that she doesn’t want and didn’t plan on. What do you do when you are stuck and can’t get out, see no future, have no dreams in which you believe? You get up and go to work. You open up the store or the office or the diner, and you open up your heart with it. You don’t know what will be coming, but you hope that someone will share a laugh or a kindness with you. And you do it the next day. Because you carry that spark of hope and blow on it. You hope that Buddha was right when he said, “Every morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.”
This is a show about hope and faith when there is no reason to have either.
And a personal note. Dear Dakin Matthews, if you come to New York with this production, may I have the first dance?
Book by Jessie Nelson, music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles; based on the film written by Adrienne Shelly. Directed by Diane Paulus. Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through Sept. 27. Tickets: 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org