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Sara Bareilles' "Waitress" movie musical shows what baking can do

The pro-shot let audiences watch a Broadway hit from the sweetest seats in the house

Bareilles stars as Jenna, a waitress whose talent for pie-baking brings her comfort as she weathers an abusive marriage.
Bareilles stars as Jenna, a waitress whose talent for pie-baking brings her comfort as she weathers an abusive marriage.

“It only takes a taste when you know it's good,” and the pro-shot of “Waitress: The Musical” brings a full helping of sugar-dusted Broadway magic to the silver screen.

Based on a 2007 indie film written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly, the “Waitress” musical opened on Broadway in 2016 with music and lyrics by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles. The show earned four Tony Award nominations but was overshadowed by its singularly successful contemporary, “Hamilton,” which beat “Waitress” in the Best Musical category.

Now, a multi-camera recording of the stage musical brings “Waitress” to movie theaters for a limited screening, offering a wider audience a taste of the original show’s charm.

Bareilles stars as Jenna, a waitress whose talent for pie-baking brings her comfort as she weathers an abusive marriage. An accidental pregnancy forces Jenna to make a difficult decision as she struggles to free herself from her husband, Earl, played by Bareilles’ real-life partner, Joe Tippett.

Along the way, Jenna relies on her culinary gifts, a few unlikely friends and a passionate affair with her gynecologist to ground her, making for a satisfying story with just the right blend of bitter and sweet.

Translating a musical from the stage to the screen comes with tradeoffs, and “Waitress: The Musical” sacrifices some of its theatricality to focus closely on its principal actors. At close range, the Broadway-style stage acting felt overstated for intimate camera angles, and tight shots of the lead’s faces often cut out the ensemble or the onstage musicians.

Other shots, aiming for artistry but missing the mark, often distracted from the story they attempted to embellish. Slow-motion cuts of the waitresses pouring sugar, butter and flour take the audience out of the theatrical illusion during a sentimental song. The movie also makes unnecessary overuse of the cross-fade as a transition, transposing a distinctly non-theatrical element on a film that should, in theory, stick as closely to the stage version as possible.

Awkwardness of the form aside, “Waitress: The Musical” captured the essence of a well-paced work of musical theatre with creative staging and a number of standout performances. The book by Jessie Nelson, often borrowing verbatim from Shelly’s original screenplay, gives the cast sharp-tongued banter that they performed with skillful comedic timing. 

Director Diane Paulus’ smooth blocking keeps the story flowing from Joe’s Pie Diner to a medical examination room. And, while some of Bareilles’ songs are more memorable than others, each musical number effectively conveys a pivotal moment in the plot.

The supporting cast of “Waitress: The Musical” — only a number of whom hail from the original Broadway ensemble — repeatedly steal the show. Charity Angél Dawson shines as Becky, Jenna’s spunky, sarcastic coworker and friend. Her delivery of “I Didn’t Plan It” shows off a powerhouse belt and a raw, authentic connection to character. Dawson’s performance feels believable enough to work even under the unforgiving eye of a close-up camera, miraculously surviving the stage-to-screen transition.

Drew Gehling plays Dr. Jim Pomatter, Jenna’s neurotic gynecologist-turned-lover, with equal parts cringe and charm. Caitlin Houlahan rounds out the waitress trio as Dawn, a nervous, dorky character originated by writer-director Shelly in the 2007 film. A show-stealing Christopher Fitzgerald plays Ogie, Dawn’s loveable goofball of a boyfriend, with an endearing earnestness.

Of course, Bareilles has made “Waitress” her own, and the film takes care to remind audiences that the woman who wrote the musical runs the movie. While Jessie Mueller, Broadway’s original Jenna, gave a definitive performance in the role, Bareilles breathes her own life into the central character of her show.

In “She Used to Be Mine,” the strongest song in the “Waitress,” Bareilles’ rich vocals pour emotion into every lyric. Knowing that Bareilles penned every word to the song herself adds another layer of meaning to an already gut-wrenching 11 o'clock number, and a pan out to the onscreen audience after the song gives the leading lady a pregnant moment to bask in the applause.

“Waitress: The Musical” brings enough narrative substance to the table to overcome its technical flaws, ultimately serving up a solid helping of a Broadway confection for a fraction of the ticket price.