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With 'Waitress,' an indie film becomes a Broadway musical, intimately

With 'Waitress,' an indie film becomes a Broadway musical, intimately
Jessie Mueller as Jenna in a trial run of 'Waitress,' which will soon open on Broadway.

If history is any indication, bringing a small, sweet movie from the 2007 Sundance Film Festival to Broadway is a pretty good idea.

That was the path taken by John Carney's "Once," which, when it morphed into an emo musical in 2012, became the smash of the Tony season. And it's the template being followed by "Waitress."  

The late Adrienne Shelly's dramedy of a skilled baker stuck in her small-town life — which became a crowd-pleasing hit when Fox Searchlight released it a few months after Sundance — is making the move to Broadway, where it will open in April at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. Under director Diane Paulus, the piece has a musical pedigree as long as a Didgeridoo, thanks to songs written by Sara Bareilles and performed on-stage by "Beautiful" star and Tony winner Jessie Mueller (as Jenna, the Keri Russell role).

"When I looked at Adrienne's film  I knew very quickly it had the imagination and whimsy to become a musical," said Tony winner Paulus,  who last year brought another acclaimed film, "Finding Neverland," to the musical stage. "It just seemed to have the potential to become theatrical."

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On Wednesday, producers allowed journalists to watch the cast perform several songs from that foray.

The numbers channel the spirit that has made Bareilles such a popular songwriter, ranging from confessional ballads to bouncier piano pop.

In the mournful "She Used To Be Mine," the heroine laments her loss of self in a thankless job ("Most days I don't recognize me/These shoes and this apron/That place and its patrons /Have taken more than I gave them.") In the uptempo duet "Bad Idea," she contemplates, and then tries to un-contemplate, an affair with the town doctor (Drew Gehling). Pie metaphors are sprinkled throughout.

Bareilles said there was a momentary adjustment in realizing these were songs she wouldn't perform (she does sing them on the soundtrack) but ultimately felt guided by the twin lodestars of Shelly's film and her own impulses. "We tried to find a really good balance by staying very true to the movie and liberating ourselves for a new interpretation," she told The Times.

Bareilles is not the belt-this-out-to-the-last row kind of songwriter, but she is helped in this regard by the intimacy of the Brooks Atkinson, which at roughly 1,100 seats is somewhat smaller than such musical mainstays as the Richard Rodgers or the Marquis.

Incidentally, the size of a room, as opposed to the flatness of a screen, offers a different kind of challenge. When it comes to pie-making, the musical won't have the advantage of Shelly's movie, which, with its close-ups of batter and beaters, pecans and phyllo dough, offered a kind of cooking-show appeal. Paulus has worked baked goods in to the set design, and also believes the items can still be invoked as a kind of symbol; after all, as much as making pies is a release for Jenna, it's also a means for her to tuck away her feelings.

In other ways, the show can lean on the strengths of the movie, which, with its marriage of plucky workplace sisterhood (one member of which was played by Shelly) and PG-13-flavored illicit romance, delighted mainstream audiences — the very groups Broadway productions need to become a hit.

"Waitress," it should be said, is also a stage rarity. With veteran screenwriter Jessie Nelson penning the show's book, "it is one of the few, if not the first, Broadway productions to count women in its top four creative slots.

Whether that makes it an explicitly feminist work remains for audiences to decide.

Mueller said she thought there were larger questions of humanity at stake. "To me it's about a person who's has learned survival tactics and coping mechanisms that were not very healthy now getting a wakeup call — the soul searching that happens" she added, "when she realizes she has to deal with herself." (She said she thought there was an "appropriate preciousness" to how the show treats its source material.)

Paulus noted that, despite the throwback Mayberry vibe, she believes there are progressive notions embedded within. This is true particularly as Jenna must decide between a loveless marriage and a forbidden love, then arriving at some surprising conclusions.  "There are choices that push the discussion and are very forward-thinking," the director said.

But ultimately, Paulus added, she viewed the show as much about conveying a feeling as making a statement.  "This is an intimate independent movie, and that spirit is what I wanted to put on stage," she said.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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