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‘Waitress’ review: Too sweet, but Mueller keeps things real

Drew Gehling as Dr. Pomatter and Jessie Mueller

Drew Gehling as Dr. Pomatter and Jessie Mueller as Jenna team up on a pie in "Waitress," a musical based on the movie by Adrienne Shelly. Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “Waitress”

WHERE Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St.

INFO $55-$169; 877-250-2929; waitressthemusical.com

BOTTOM LINE Overly sweet musical about tough lives, spiced up by the remarkable Jessie Mueller.

For a musical-comedy about a battered wife, an unwanted pregnancy and multiple spousal betrayals, “Waitress” is really very sweet. Sometimes, like the pies our beleaguered heroine bakes with such otherworldly finesse, such goodness can also get a bit cloying.

And so it goes with this closely replicated, sugar-sprinkled adaptation of the 2007 indie movie about Jenna, a waitress in an awful marriage who works in a small-town diner not all that different from the one in the zeitgeist female-empowerment film of 1974, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”

The distinctions here include a rousing, comfort-food pop score by Sara Bareilles, the singer-songwriter in her confident Broadway composing debut, and the can’t-miss casting of Jessie Mueller as Jenna. Mueller, whose down-to-earth authenticity as Carole King in “Beautiful” earned her a 2014 Tony, brings an unforced honesty and creamy, plaintive, intricately colored voice to a character who keeps things real when, all around her, things threaten to become showbiz pat.

Diane Paulus, who has directed many adventurous projects, is in her down-the-middle commercial mood, typified by her staging of “Finding Neverland.” This new one is an old-fashioned, well-crafted production with an onstage band and realistic sets (by Scott Pask) that slide Jenna to the diner, the dreary home where Jenna lives with her abusive husband and the obstetrician’s office where she finds love.

Unlike the film, nobody in the cast is too gorgeous to believe, which goes a way to counteract the exaggerated antics adapted from Adrienne Shelly’s subtler screenplay. Drew Gehling, as the married doctor, is more goofy than dashing, which, somehow, makes the affair seem less transgressive. Also, there’s a new character, a smart-aleck nurse who knows the secret of the taboo affair, thus neutralizing the real danger with jokes.

Nick Cordero is so charmless as Jenna’s husband that we can’t believe she ever loved the brute. But Dakin Matthews is lovely as the diner’s aging owner. And the virtuosic Christopher Fitzgerald, as a waitress’s unexpectedly delightful boyfriend, can even turn an I’m-stalking-you song into an ode to eternal love.

Jenna’s two pals at the diner — Kimiko Glenn and Keala Settle — are encouraged to punch the humor, bellow and smear the lyrics as if the microphones are stuck in their windpipes. This is a shame because Bareilles can write ethereal harmonies and plaintive ballads about how “sugar, butter and mothers” can turn unhappiness into something more interesting than apple pie.

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