NEW YORK (AP) — The unmistakable smell of baking pies pervades the Brooks Atkinson Theatre at performances of the sweet and savory new musical "Waitress." It's not a trick — there really is a pie baking in the lobby.
Such a move might seem mawkish or desperate at any other theater, but here it shows off the quirky genuineness of "Waitress." For a show about a baker, it feels like we are sitting inside a theater-sized pie.
It might not have worked if the creators hadn't used a great recipe: Take terrific songs by Sara Bareilles, mix them to a story by Jessie Nelson that isn't too sugary, bake that with intimate, understated direction by Diane Paulus and top it off with a powerhouse performance by Jessie Mueller.
The musical that opened Sunday is adapted from a 2007 film starring Keri Russell about a waitress and pie-maker trapped in a small-town diner and a loveless marriage. It offers unusual ingredients for musical theater, like infidelity, spousal abuse and lack of maternal instincts.
But this is a rollicking show with dream sequences, flour tossed around like pixie dust and brave staging. The song "The Negative" has three women waving pregnancy testing sticks as they pray for them to reveal two lines. There's also a funny make-out session on a gynecologists' examination chair, complete with stirrups.
Bareilles proves adept at writing for different characters and styles, earning ribbons for the rocking "I Didn't Plan It" — with the great lines "Look around you/There ain't saints here, baby/We're all just looking for a little less crazy" — the jokey "Never Ever Getting Rid of Me" and the rockabilly duet "Bad Idea." Nelson's script sometimes drifts toward icky sweetness but always seems to quickly cut it with a dash of vinegar.
But the best part of this show is Mueller as piemaker Jenna, who won a Tony Award for playing Carole King in the musical "Beautiful." She combines earthiness, sexiness, timidity and dreaminess and her voice overflows with emotion. Listening to her sing the heartbreaking "She Used to Be Mine" is surely one of the very best things on Broadway this season.
The cast also includes a very menacing Nick Cordero as Jenna's husband and a terrific scene-stealing Christopher Fitzgerald as an unlikely love interest. Drew Gehling as Jenna's ob-gyn is masterful in a comic and moving performance, getting a laugh once just for primping his hair.
The rest of the cast of characters leans a little too hard on the quirky, like the lonely, odd waitress who is a secret knockout (Kimiko Glenn, from "Orange Is the New Black"). The use of a sour black nurse gets old quick, too.
Paulus, lately with big musicals like "Finding Neverland" and "Pippin," paints with a more delicate brush this time but it's no less powerful. A smaller story has brought out a heartfelt ingenuity and low-tech fireworks that are naturally beautiful.
She and choreographer Lorin Latarro offer little jewels of movement — a group of soon-to-be-delivering moms moving to the heartbeats of their babies, and three waitresses singing as they add real ingredients to a pie mixture. It's all so well thought out that in one sequence, when the recipe calls for gingersnaps, everyone snaps their fingers.
However this isn't the best show to catch if you've skipped a meal, particularly since scenic designer Scott Pask has put some four dozen pies stacked and rotating in tall cylinders on either side of the stage. But if you're hungry for a heartfelt gooey musical with a molten star in the middle, order up a slice of "Waitress."
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