Jessie Mueller’s terrific performance in the new musical “Waitress” at the American Repertory Theater makes one hope she’ll still be starring when the show, helmed by ART artistic director Diane Paulus, debuts on Broadway next spring.
The actress brings a weary gravity to the title role of the “desperately sad” Jenna, along with a luminous singing voice that makes clear why Mueller won a Tony Award last year for “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.” Especially in the second act, Mueller elevates an entertaining show that faithfully follows the 2007 movie that starred Keri Russell, including some bits that are only sitcom deep.
“Waitress” is an empowerment fable with pie. If it was a novel, it would include recipes and be a favorite of book clubs but not the critics.
Jenna is a small-town diner waitress with a hard life — married young to an abusive moron named Earl (Joe Tippett), who takes her tip money when she gets home. At Joe’s Pie Diner, she’s the secret weapon, baking delicious and imaginative pies with cute names that turn dark after she finds out she’s pregnant: “I Don’t Want to Have a Baby With Earl Pie” and “Pregnant Miserable Self Pitying Loser Humble Pie.”
It looks like her life might change for the better when sparks fly between her and her OB-GYN, Dr. Pomatter, a romance that turns physical right there on the exam table. In the movie, the doctor was played by the twinkly-eyed hunk Nathan Fillion, so you knew it was going to happen. Here Drew Gehling is a nervous suitor and has a good way with a funny line, but even given Jenna’s agitated state, their hookup seemed a little abrupt. It ought to be easy enough for director Paulus and book writer Jessie Nelson to add a moment for the pair as they tweak the show through its run in Cambridge.
Sara Bareilles’s songs give Jenna and one or two other characters a chance to explore their feelings, and they’re best when they stay close to her normal singer-songwriter mode. Jenna’s second-act solo number, “She Used to Be Mine,” is the night’s showstopper, coming when she finds out that Dr. Pomatter may not be the answer to her problems. With a voice that sometimes recalls King, Mueller sings a heartbreaking self-assessment: “She is broken but won’t ask for help/ She is messy but she’s kind/ She is lonely most of the time.”
Bareilles and Paulus also give a lovely moment to veteran character actor Dakin Matthews as Joe, the diner owner, a curmudgeon whose heart of gold only Jenna sees. When he sings “Take It From an Old Man” to her while they dance at a wedding, it’s a genuine lump-in-the-throat moment.
There are also times when you can hear Bareilles working hard to produce particular types of songs to fill the requirements of certain scenes. “I Love You Like a Table”? Not so much.
Aside from Joe and the doctor, the characters aren’t much deeper than their one-line descriptions, although the actors are often winning. The best lines, happy and sad, often come directly from the movie. Eric Anderson hits his jokes with a Nick Offerman rhythm as grumpy, put-upon cook Cal. Keala Settle wrings every laugh out of the sassy/tough waitress Becky, and sings the heck out of her number, “I Didn’t Plan It.”
Jeanna de Waal is sweet as nebbishy waitress Dawn, the role played in the movie by writer-director Adrienne Shelly. (Shelly was murdered before the movie opened, adding a layer of tragedy to the story.) And Jeremy Morse is a ball of energy as Ogie, the dweeby weirdo with whom she finds love.
In the bigger picture — spoiler alert! — the road to happiness for the heroine seems to be through baking pies and being a mother, not a common route in today’s theater. But with some subtle additions to Jenna’s back story here, it’s a longer arc than you’d think.
Stagecraft is never a question at the ART these days. The Broadway design team from the Paulus-directed “Finding Neverland” produces the usual effortless-looking theatrical magic, although this time there’s no actual magic required. The onstage area for the band seems to take up an awful lot of space, but the musicians are excellent.
The whisper-sung repetition of “Sugar . . . butter . . . flour” as Jenna builds her pies adds an almost eerie touch to her sadness. In a program note, Nelson mentions the adage that you can know everything about people by how they treat their waitress. Seeing “Waitress,” it’s clear that Mueller feels a deep empathy for her server, enough to carry this show past its limitations.
Book by Jessie Nelson, music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles; based on the film written by Adrienne Shelly. Directed by Diane Paulus. Presented by American Rep-ertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through Sept. 27. Tickets: 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.orgJoel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.