By: Paulanne Simmons
In 2014, The Bridges of Madison County, a musical based on Robert James Waller’s 1992 romantic novel, only lasted three months on Broadway. Many had thought it might do better, considering the 1995 film based on the same novel was a huge success and the musical had a book by Marsha Norman and score by Jason Robert Brown. Most concluded the show’s box office failure was due in part to poor reviews but also to the audience’s lack of sympathy for the heroine, a woman who has an affair with a sexy photographer while her hard-working husband is at the state fair with the kids.
Keala Settle, Jesse Mueller, Jeanna de Waal
This season’s new musical, Waitress, has much in common with The Bridges of Madison County. It is also preceded by a beloved film (Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 indie of the same name) and also focusses on a cheating wife. The main difference is this time the husband, Earl, has been turned into an almost comically abusive lout by Nick Cordero‘s overkill acting and Diane Paulus’s direction. Nevertheless, mostly positive reviews may turn the show into the hit The Bridges of Madison County never was.
If the show garners any awards this season it will be chiefly because of Jessie Mueller’s portrayal of Jenna, the kind but passive waitress and pie maker who falls for her goofy but ardent obstetrician.
Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling) is married, but cannot resist Jenna’s delicious pies or pregnant body. In fact, the couple is so amorous they can’t even wait to get out of the doctor’s office for their trysts. Sex on the examination table must be somewhat uncomfortable and arduous, but Jenna and Dr. Pomatter make it look like it’s easy and fun, event though Nurse Norma (Charity Angel Dawson) has a tendency to appear at awkward moments.
Muller has a strong and beautiful voice that easily handles the pop score by Sara Bareilles. And she exudes a certain warmth that makes us root for Jenna despite her poor decisions. She is entirely believable as she sings while making the pies she hopes to enter into a contest so she will win enough money to leave Earl.
If we are asked to take Jenna and her doctor seriously, fortunately we are not given such a task in the case of her fellow workers: the wacky, American history-obsessed Dawn (Kimiko Glenn) who becomes involved with Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald), the equally wacky and obsessed man she meets online; and the overweight, oversexed Becky (Keala Settle) who ends up falling for the diner’s uncouth cook, Cal (Eric Anderson), although one wonders which they enjoy more, the sex or the insults. These two sub-plots are pure face, and they work.
With it’s all-woman creative team, and woman-centered story, Waitress, for many, represents a milestone in theater as female empowerment. But in real life, Jenna would end up feeling abandoned and abused when she found out Dr. Pomatter has no intention of leaving his wife, and Dr. Pomatter would probably lose his license after the nurse turned him in for unethical behavior, even if they sang as well as Mueller and Gehling.
Waitress is at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47 Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenues) 877-250-2929