Monday, September 21, 2015

Waitress: Lowest Common Denominator

Jessie Mueller (right) & Dakin Matthews in Waitress, at the American Repertory Theatre. (All photos by Evgenia Eliseeva)

Waitress is the latest in a series of new musicals and revivals that American Repertory Theatre’s artistic director, Diane Paulus, has been shepherding through the tryout phase in Cambridge with an eye on opening them in New York, and nearly all of them have made the move successfully. I have decidedly mixed feelings about Paulus’ using A.R.T. as a clearing house for New York-bound projects – it’s not as if A.R.T. was such a great place in the days when it housed allegedly cutting-edge productions by prestigious guest directors – but I might feel less ornery about these shows if they seemed to be working toward some balance of art and commerce. But last season’s Finding Neverland was a bald attempt (mostly on the part of hands-on producer Harvey Weinstein) to home in on the audience for Disney stage musicals, and Waitress is aimed at the crowd that goes wild at down-home musicals like The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and 9 to 5.

The source material is a 2007 movie written and directed by actress-turned-auteur Adrienne Shelly, whose grisly murder just months before its release conferred more significance on the picture than it would have been granted otherwise. Keri Russell plays Jenna, a waitress at a diner in a small southern town with a talent for inventing pies. She’s scheming to find a way out of her marriage to Earl (Jeremy Sisto), a narcissistic, abusive loser, but when she finds herself pregnant she figures she’s in for the miserable long haul. Then she falls into an affair with her gynecologist (Nathan Fillion), but though he brings her the first sexual pleasure she’s had in years, he’s also married and the romance has nowhere to go. What eventually brings her salvation is motherhood: it fulfills her and brings her the courage to walk out on Earl and refurbish the diner, whose owner (Andy Griffith) leaves it to her in his will. The movie espouses a sort of pretend feminism and phony populism that swirl on top of its rock-bound conservatism like the topping on one of Jenna’s pies. It’s obnoxious: most of the characters are caricatures the writing blatantly condescends to, and what passes for adult attitudes is really just a queasy mix of Lifetime Movie platitudes and sex jokes. Aside from Jenna’s tasty-looking pies, the only things the movie has to recommend it are Fillion’s stumblebum charm and the radiant Keri Russell, who has the freshness of a first-rate romantic comedian and genuine acting chops. (This last is hardly a surprise to anyone who’s been watching her on The Americans or has caught her in subsequent movies like Dark Skies and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.)

In the musical, even the pies aren’t appealing: they look like they come out of the bakery department at Stop & Shop and sometimes the combination of ingredients sounds foul. The book is by Jessie Nelson, a screenwriter-filmmaker whose output includes such dispiriting movies as Corrina, Corrina, I Am Sam and The Story of Us. The songs are by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles; there are eighteen of them, but the morning after I saw the show I could only remember two: “Opening Up,” the ensemble number at the top, which has an affable pop breeziness, and “Take It from an Old Man,” which Joe (Dakin Matthews) sings to Jenna in the middle of the second act while they’re dancing together at the wedding of one of her co-workers. It’s nice enough but it sounds like a third-generation version of an Alan Jackson ballad.

Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller, and Jeanna de Waal in Waitress.
Nelson and Bareilles and Paulus, who directed, have toned down the caricature, but they haven’t found anything interesting to put in its place; the characters are underwritten and the actors hamstrung by their limitations. That’s more or less equally true of Matthews’ Joe, Jenna’s lover Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), Jenna’s pal Dawn (Jeanna De Waal), Dawn’s suitor Ogie (Jeremy Morse), and Cal (Eric Anderson), the cook who bosses around the waitresses. (Though Joe owns the diner and eats there every day, Cal never seems to acknowledge his existence, let alone treat him as his employer, which struck me as rather weird.) As Becky, the brassy one in the trio of waitresses, Keala Settle compensates for the thin writing by filling in the character with a soulful R&B musical presence. And as Earl, Joe Tippett imbues a number called “You Will Still Be Mine” with the emotional resonance of an authentic country-western performer. I looked forward to seeing what Tippett would do after intermission, but the character disappears from the musical for about an hour and only returns in time to get his comeuppance.

Jenna is played by Jessie Mueller, who won a Tony for playing Carole King in the musical bio Beautiful. I didn’t catch her in that role, but she lit up the ill-advised 2012 Broadway revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever with Harry Connick, and I was looking forward to seeing her again. Unfortunately her performance is monochromatic, defined by a kind of clenched anxiety. She does go all the way with her second-act solo, “You Matter to Me,” though it’s so obviously rigged for a big emotional effect that I can’t say I derived much pleasure out of it. (That’s less Mueller’s fault than the fault of the people who put the show together.)

A small but congenial and hard-working ensemble provides vocal back-up and stands in for the customers at Joe’s Pie Diner. The set by Scott Pask, Paulus’ go-to designer, carves out a section for the lively six-member band (which includes musical supervisor Nadia DiGiallonardo on piano) on the raised upstage part of the split-level diner, which is a good idea. But the musical aims pretty low, and you’re stuck sitting around for nearly three hours to receive the mediocre meal it serves up.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment