Review by Brian Lowry, CNN
(CNN) — Nothing produces a tingle up the spine quite like live theater, and “Waitress: The Musical” joins the list of filmed musicals that have preserved their stage qualities while giving viewers the best seat in the house. Sara Bareilles headlines this adaptation for which she wrote the lilting songs, in a show that manages to be alternately sweet and silly, touching and raunchy.
Based on the 2007 movie starring Keri Russell, “Waitress” loaded up a full tray’s worth of Tony Award nominations in 2016, only to experience the unfortunate timing of getting shot down by running into the “Hamilton” buzzsaw. Appropriately, the latter’s production on Disney+ kicked off a pandemic wave of filmed musicals and plays coming to streaming services, which also included Apple’s “Come From Away,” both glittering examples of the form.
Receiving a five-day theatrical window, the filmed version of the musical “Waitress” doesn’t climb to those heights, but it comes plenty close, and soars in moments. Bareilles, for example, earns (and deserves) a mid-show standing ovation after belting out “She Used to Be Mine,” a song that defines the musical’s emotional core.
Said core comes from Bareilles’ Jenna, whose bond with her coworkers (Charity Angél Dawson, Caitlin Houlahan) at the local diner sustains her in the face of an unhappy home life with her abusive lout of a husband (Joe Tippett).
Jenna is thus horrified to discover that she might be pregnant – the byproduct of a drunken night – though the unwelcome development does bring her into contact with an awkward doctor (Drew Gehling), with whom she begins an affair. Add that to her roster of questionable choices, which the two acknowledge head-on in a song titled “Bad Idea.”
Jenna also possesses a knack for pie-making courtesy of her late mother, a skill that she hopes to use to procure her freedom, planning to enter a contest and use the prize money to run away. If that feels like a thin thread upon which to hang her hopes, it’s emblematic of the desperation that makes “Waitress” so poignant.
The more theatrical aspects of the musical, such as Christopher Fitzgerald’s eccentric suitor, are clearly designed for an in-person setting, and risk feeling a little too big blown up for the screen.
Nevertheless, in a month that brings two movie musicals in “The Color Purple” (also a movie turned into a musical) and “Wonka,” the show makes the transition with most of its charms – and Bareilles’ golden set of singing pipes – very much intact. And while “Waitress” is still probably a dish best served live, like “Hamilton” and “Come From Away,” seeing this event presentation feels like a good idea.
“Waitress: The Musical” will play December 7-11 in US theaters.
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