What is that indefinable quality that makes an actor a star?
Jessie Mueller, who won a Tony in 2014 for her performance in "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical," helped me once again answer this question. Whenever she was onstage in "Waitress," the new Broadway musical based on the 2007 Adrienne Shelly movie, I wanted time to stop so that her performance would never have to end.
I've had this experience before with Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald, but it's rare. And since I'm still in the throes of Cynthia Erivo's transcendent turn in the Broadway revival of "The Color Purple," I really wasn't expecting a resurgence of that goose-bumpy feeling. (Theater critics can't afford to be too greedy.)
What's even more surprising is that I was resisting "Waitress" in the early going. The musical, which had its official opening Sunday at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, was pitched a little too broadly for my liking.
The Southern accents were molasses-thick, and the diner setting made the sitcom "Alice" seem like a paragon of comic subtlety. I kept wishing director Diane Paulus would turn down the volume of her production so that I could get out of my crouch.
But the show is built around Mueller's character, a waitress at a small-town diner that's famous for the pies this hard-working woman dreams up as an escape from her difficult life. Mueller's portrayal provides this overeager show with an emotional core, softening the musical with a touching genuineness.
Mueller has a gift for playing ordinary women who have an extraordinary gift. In "Beautiful," she captured singer-songwriter Carole King's insecurity and vulnerability that coexisted with her incredible musical talent.
In portraying Jenna, a woman in an abusive marriage who feels even more trapped after finding out that she's pregnant, Mueller affectingly counterbalances strength with sorrow. Jenna, all too aware of her imperfections, moves apologetically through her unremarkable life, but even she realizes that she deserves better. Her genius for baking isn't the only thing that sets her apart — her kindness and considerateness are standout qualities as well — but it's the one thing that keeps her from giving up on her future.
The musical's lovely score by Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles gives Mueller plenty of opportunity to expose Jenna's inner drama. The style of the songs evokes at times Sarah McLachlan and Joni Mitchell, with Mueller tracing emotional arcs over a sliding vocal range. There are beautiful harmonies throughout, a couple of high-spirited group numbers and some jaunty orchestral use of kitchen utensils, but the score is notable for allowing Mueller to bare Jenna's soul in a wash of ethereal jazz.
Marked by tragedy, the movie "Waitress," which starred Keri Russell, made headlines before it was even released. Writer-director Shelly (who also appeared in the film) was killed months before her film was accepted into the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
The book for the musical by filmmaker Jessie Nelson ("Corrina, Corrina," "I Am Sam") is faithful to the general outline of Shelly's story. This is a tale about a woman slowly acquiring the self-worth needed to free herself from the disastrous marriage she entered when she was too young to know better.
The movement of the drama is incremental, an accumulation of experience earned the hard way, through trial and error. The storytelling mode is emphatically quirky in a Southern grotesque way that is recognizable though not especially authentic.
The familiarity of the sitcom setting may be the reason Paulus, whose impressive résumé includes Tony Award-winning revivals of "Hair," "Pippin" and "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," hits the material so hard in the beginning. It's as though she's trying to power through the clichés.
Like her TV predecessor Alice (spawned from the Scorsese film "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore"), Jenna has two kooky co-workers, Becky (Keala Settle), a bawdy tower of strength, and Dawn (Kimiko Glenn from "Orange Is the New Black"), a shy, nervous type who finds love on the Internet in the eccentric shape of a tax auditor named Ogie (played by Christopher Fitzgerald with nutty, audience-winning exuberance).
There's also a crotchety cook named Cal (Eric Anderson), whose temper improves after sexual sparks ignite between him and Becky. Joe (Dakin Matthews), the fussbudget owner, can usually be found parked in a booth driving the waitresses crazy with his persnickety food orders.
Jenna can't help feeling a little heartbroken about this baby she's carrying. She had been planning to leave her husband, Earl (Nick Cordero), who browbeats her, takes her wages and then demands a kiss. But now that she's pregnant, she feels she might not ever escape his clutches.
A visit to the gynecologist brings unexpected romance into Jenna's life. Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), newly arrived from Connecticut, becomes smitten with Jenna and the "biblically good" pies she brings to the office each time she visits. That Jenna and the doctor are both married doesn't prevent their affair from taking off, though it does complicate the romantic-comedy solution to the dilemma of Jenna's life.
But in this woman-centered story, the answer Jenna is searching for must be found from within — albeit with a little help from her friends. Gehling's doctor is a nice passing fantasy (in a slightly diffident, pleasantly unconventional package with an appealingly high singing voice), but Jenna has too many of her own unrealized dreams to entangle herself with a man who is committed to someone else.
There are new pie combinations to dream up (Jenna gets ideas for desserts in the lightning-flash way fictional scientists make breakthroughs in their research), new pie contests to enter, a baby girl to support and maybe one day her very own pie shop. In a performance in which singing and acting are perfectly fused, Mueller makes us care about every egg-beating turn in Jenna's journey.
Musicals commonly have a second-act problem. "Waitress" is one of the few that actually gets better as it goes along. Paulus' direction grows more supple, the quirks of the characters become more richly inhabited, the music travels to more poignant places and Mueller's performance just goes from strength to strength.
Admittedly, the comic coincidences and plot conveniences don't stand the test of realism and the ending is sentimental in a non-rom-com way. But the show's heart is earned through the beauty and integrity of Mueller's work.
In an era glutted with gifted musical theater performers, she stands out as a luminous everywoman. "Waitress" wears its flaws on its uniform sleeve, but the naked honesty of Mueller's singing is enough to make an overscheduled theater critic wish that the curtain would never come down.