“Sisters (Are Doing It For Themselves).” Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin sang that joyous feminist anthem back in 1985 and 22 years later Adrienne Shelly put that theme to work in her third feature film, the light/dark “Waitress,” set in the rural American southland and centered on the pie-making waitress Jenna (played by Keri Russell in the movie). Jenna is stuck in a dead-end, abusive marriage and has only her pie-making therapy as a release; she gives her pies both whimsical and angrily truthful names like “I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby pie” and “Ruining My Life pie.” Earl, of course, is the a-hole of a husband.
That movie – Shelly’s last, she was the victim of a random murder – has been transported to the stage and “Waitress” is at the ART’s Loeb Drama Center through Sept. 27. Surprised by that? Not really. I’m not sure the ART’s artistic director Diane Paulus has ever seen a piece of work (movie, other play, novel, memoir, shopping list, etc.) that she hasn’t thought: “This would make a really neat musical!”
And she enlisted the help of mainstream pop singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles whose 20+ songs run through the musical. (The band, unlike it most productions, is seen at the rear, stage-right, throughout the show, stressing the importance of the mostly piano-based – Nadia DiGiallonardo is the pianist – music.) The characters burst into song with a high degree of regularity. A whisper-sung mantra – “Sugar … butter … flour” – is intoned at the beginning of the play and it circles back throughout. You know, the staples of life (or pie), the grounding for Jenna.
Jessie Mueller plays Jenna and she works alongside ladies who also have some troubles with their lives, the boisterous, take-charge Becky (Keala Settle), Dawn (Jeanna de Waal), a shy reclusive sort who’s a history buff, Cal (Eric Anderson) is the gruff (but loveable!) boss of the diner and the diner’s owner old Joe (Dakin Matthews) is a frequent visitor and curmudgeonly (but loveable!) customer.
Jenna’s newly discovered and unwanted pregnancy is what kicks the play into gear – and helps bond the work-mates together. She finds relief in two ways (baking pies, receiving compliments for them, maybe entering a lucrative pie competition) and in her improbable romance with her flighty gynecologist Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling). This, of course, does not bode well for the possessive and controlling Earl (Joe Tippett), whose persona verges on psychotic. To be fair, not much of anything sits well with the Earl, a guitarist (and guitar-basher) who does get to show a spark of humanity at one point.
The action opens with a fast-and-furious number with customers banging coffee cups for added percussion and Cal chipping in on pots and pans banging. The songs and skits move “Waitress” along at a pretty fast clip – and Muelller, who won a Tony for her portrayal of Carole King – has a beautiful voice. As is often the case, the musical numbers are where the characters inner thoughts (obsessions, hopes, dreams) open up and come flying though. There’s a near-teary moment when Joe – who we’ve not yet seen sung – jumps up from his table and leaps into the song and dance of “Take It From an Old Man” near the end of Act 2. Joe may not be long for this world, but he has some trenchant advice for those who will be.
I will say I would’ve been happy with a bit less sub-plot details and maybe 20 minutes less music. (“I Love You Like a Table” is one song that should hit the cutting room floor.) And Dawn’s suitor, Ogie (Jeremy Morse) was mostly annoying and their courtship the most unbelievable of the bunch.
But I liked it. The mix of the almost sit-commy whimsical with the disturbing, the taboo with the familiar, the resilience show by the women trying to make more of their lives than being waitresses at a pie shop.
As is often seems the case these days with Paulus-touched productions, it’s headed to Broadway (next spring). It’s funny: Boston used to be used as a “tryout” town for Broadway productions – I remember seeing a bunch of these in Boston’s theater district in the ‘80s – and now the ART, at least to some degree, serves that role. Nothing wrong with that, and I’m sure the play will evolve as it winds its way to Broadway, though I wish New Yorkers wouldn’t refer to the ART shows as “tryouts.” Dammit, it’s some of the best local – and locally generated – theater Boston has to offer.
Directed by Diane Paulus. Book by Jessie Nelson, music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles. Based on the film written by Adrienne Shelly.
At Loeb Drama Center, 40 Brattle St., Cambridge, through Sept. 27. 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org