Attention foot fetishists and dessert freaks! There are two shows on stage right now that you MUST see: KINKY BOOTS, the 2013 Tony-winning, high-kicking, cross-dressing Best Musical scored by Grammy winner Cyndi Lauper and Tony winner Harvey Fierstein, and WAITRESS the world premiere, Broadway-bound musical composed by Grammy-nominated artist Sara Bareilles and directed by the A.R.T.’s Tony award-winning artistic director Diane Paulus. Start making plans.
Begin by trying to get a ticket for the American Repertory Theater’s latest, a scrumptious slice of musical theater that was first a movie and is now having its world premiere onstage: WAITRESS. I thought my heart would burst from the intimate beauty of the songs by Sara Bareilles, the touching timbre of the voices, the simple goodness of the book, and these charismatic performances the most moving of which is that of Jessie Mueller hot off her Tony Award-winning performance on Broadway as Carole King in “BEAUTIFUL.”
Based on the offbeat and poignant film written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly, WAITRESS is about a young woman trapped in an abusive marriage who bakes her heart and soul into her signature pies: “no nonsense cherry pie”or “Lost shepherd’s pie” or “key (lime) to happiness pie.” Jenna (Jessie Mueller) dreams of escape and suddenly finds herself pregnant. Will she give birth to the baby– and herself too?
The show had me at “butter…sugar…flour.” They are the first words intoned, and a recurring ode to all I think of as wholesome: the fresh warmth of what our mothers baked– or we dreamed they did. Jenna stands alone center stage, measuring out a recipe she creates as she goes; meanwhile the “pie lattice” curtain rises to reveal the local diner where she works, tables in the foreground, band nestled in onstage behind a transparent screen, and beyond, telephone poles marking a highway that merges with the big sky changing colors at sunset and enveloping everything. It’s a beauty of a set with all the promise and lonesomeness of the open road in the middle of small town America. Will Jenna find the courage to set out or won’t she? Our hearts and hers depend upon it right from the start.
The first song “What’s Inside” cues us to the heartbreaking harmonies to come and lets us know that a pie is not just a pie. We meet Jenna’s workmates, the big-voiced, bosomy, wisecracking Becky (Keala Settle), and the geeky, bespectacled and braided Dawn (Jeanna De Waal) who work the tables, while the short tempered, short order cook Cal (Eric Anderson) barks them along. Immediately we feel their camaraderie, a sisterhood under siege, and a sense of the lengths to which they will go for one another.
Soon we meet Jenna’s guitar-strumming lout of a husband Earl played by Joe Tippett with just enough vulnerability and attractiveness to make us understand how she might have once fallen for him. We also meet Jenna’s doctor, the tall, slim new obstetrician in town who will help deliver Jenna to her future or at least provide some exciting momentum. Dr. Pomatter is played by Drew Gehling who looks like a young Tony Perkins without the creepiness and with a refinement and goofy innocence that stirs Jenna up, eventually inspiring her to new heights–culinary and otherwise. Together they cross every PC boundary and head for pineapple upside down pie territory; these romantic encounters are hilarious and highlight Gehling’s flair for physical comedy.
The casting is ideal, and the creative team, the talented cooks in the kitchen, have served up a deeply satisfying meal. Sara Bareilles has crafted a menu of tunes that hit all the notes in Jessie Nelson’s pitch perfect script and Paulus’s direction keeps all the ingredients in balance. The tunes are unlike any of Bareilles radio hits, and unlike much of what I’ve heard in most mainstream musicals. In an era of prefab broadway show tunes, Bareilles in her theatrical maiden voyage, has managed to compose surprisingly intricate melodies that delicately unlock the emotional lives of these characters, and she does it across a wide canvas with a trademark wistfulness and gentle humor. There’s the sweetly funny and observant “I Love You Like a Table” sung by Dawn’s rhetorically challenged and oh-so-earnest lover Ogie (a dear Jeremy Morse), and then there’s the lush, homespun lyricism of “A Soft Place to Land.” Mueller’s tender, penetrating voice alone could reduce a strong woman to tears; she and Gehling dueting on “You Matter to Me” are more than the sum of their perfect parts.
A few quibbles; the ending is a tad tidy, with all the bitter loose ends too suddenly tied up. And I wish I could have heard the lyrics with their compact subtle wisdom better, or even seen them written out; I know they’d read like poetry. But the musical handles its disparate fare– domestic violence,women in love, and a crusty old man (a wonderful Dakin Matthews as Joe, the diner’s owner) with a gravitas belying its delicate surface and befitting what’s at stake.
But ultimately I loved the way this musical celebrated quiet strength, and made me feel the connection between mothers and daughters, what women pass down and along to one other in a way that is nourishing and as basic as the recipes we make out of love. I’ve always lusted after pie. Any kind. And now I’ll always think of pie as a slice of life. Go and feast on the A.R.T.’s “dreamy deep dish musical slice of life pie”–WAITRESS at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge through September 27!
Then cross the river and head for Boston to see KINKY BOOTS. When I first heard what the show was about, I remember rolling my eyes and thinking, much as they turn me on–how can sky-high stilettos as the subject of a musical possibly stand up? And then I found out the musical is based on a true story about a failing English shoe factory that reinvented itself by creating sturdier stilettos for an underserved niche market–drag queens and transvestites. In the real story, the factory manager actually modeled the funky footwear himself in the catalogue! Oh those frisky Brits.
Turns out, the show has as much on its mind as it does on its feet, and pumps out inventively choreographed production numbers that are fun, funny, moving, with a lot to say in these gender-bending times. The musical titillates with tunes like “Sex Is in the Heel” led by one “Lola” along with a marvelous ensemble of cross-dressing voluptuaries and factory workers; later the show brought me to tears with a deeply poignant duet called “Not my Father’s Son” sung by boot designer Lola and factory owner Charlie as the two bond over the pain of not fulfilling our parents’ dreams.
A word about Lola. She is played by Kyle Taylor Parker as a glorious, wickedly funny, prize-fighting drag queen whose deeply soulful performance and gorgeous vocals stopped the show more than once. Parker humanizes every moment, turning the predictable into the extraordinary. Steven Booth as Charlie Price is not nearly as effective as the factory owner, and hits his high notes with a nasally twang. But Lindsay Nicole Chambers as factory gal Lauren, steals the spotlight as she regales us with “The History of Wrong Guys,” while damply lusting after the guy she’s crushin’ on now, her boss Charlie. KINKY BOOTS is a fabulous night of fancy footwear in motion and the sure fit of accepting someone for who they really are. Presented by Broadway in Boston and extended at the Boston Opera House until August 30!