Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Lorin Latarro

A Taste of Things to Come – Cookin’ Up Friendship


Take your mother, your daughters, your nieces, your friends. What works in this piece sheds light on the lives of women as they first broke free of restraining traditions – through character, in song, not polemic.

It’s 1957. President Eisenhower is in The White House. We’re in the middle of The Cold War. On The Ed Sullivan Show, Elvis Presley is shown only from the waist up. American Bandstand premiers. Rock Hudson is the national heartthrob. Arkansas calls out the National Guard to prevent African-American students from enrolling in high school. The Civil Rights Commission is established. A first Vietnam casualty is sustained by the U.S. Military. Sputnik I is launched. Sex is not publicly discussed. The hula hoop is introduced.


Allison Guinn, Janet Dacal, Autumn Hurlbert, Paige Faure

We’re in Joan Smith’s Winnetka, Illinois kitchen at a meeting of the Betty Crocker inspired Wednesday Winnetka Women’s Cooking Club. “Betty” herself is briefly seen on a “television screen” that doubles as the picture window when not in use. “I guarantee a perfect cake every time you bake…Or write General Mills, Minneapolis, Minnesota and get your money back,” the sincere black and white figure assures America. (Use of vintage commercials and advertising is inspired.) This is the group’s 17th annual attempt at winning a national contest providing a loose reason to gather. Each has dreams of what to do with the prize.

The club: Joan (Paige Faure), contentedly married to a traveling salesman and taking a journalism course at night. “Don’t be silly, women aren’t journalists,” Dottie comments. No kids. Connie Olsen (Autumn Hurlburt), due to give birth to her first child in three days, is married to Thor who works at J.C. Penney in women’s shoes. There was somethin’ missin’ in his kissin’/But they said I’d look pretty in white…Dottie O’Farrell (Allison Guinn) a good natured “baby machine” with two sets of twins, more conservatively set in her beliefs than the others. Her spouse is a telephone repairman. And Agnes Crookshank (Janet Dacal), who, single, arrives in curlers so neighbors will think she has a date. Agnes aches to make a splash in the entertainment world. “An idea person,” she neither cooks nor sees the need.


Paige Faure, Autumn Hurlbert, Allison Guinn, Janet Dacal

A rousing “Cooking” is followed by “Dear Abby” in which each woman asks a revealing question… Abby I need you, Shoop Shoop Doo Wah…This may be the first choreography that neatly utilizes rolling pins like burlesque props. A song about gossip (an integral part of weekly meetings), finds the ladies in trench coats and shades. Potential scandals are marvelously credible… I was under the dryer, when…(the dryer is a large, overturned, aluminum mixing bowl.) Brava. Songs employ melodic genres of the time.

Joe Bonomo’s manuals of behavior for women (these existed “right next to the gum and mints at the checkout counter”), which three of the women live by, include Ten Easy Steps to the Altar: “1. Be mentally prepared. 2. Sometimes you have to put on an act…” At 23, Agnes is considered a spinster. (Age should be raised a bit to support the cast.) Connie calls Sidney Poitier, a negro, handsome. The word “breast” elicits literal screams of shock and embarrassment.

Images in The Kinsey Report (it’s Joan’s copy) are turned this way and that with wariness and curiosity. The women mourn lack of a bar at which they can congregate like men. “Happy Hour” is ersatz Polynesian. (And fun.) When Connie’s water breaks, the room panics. We find out there’s a really good reason she doesn’t want to call Thor. Unexpected judgments arise. All this may sound comprehensive, but I assure you, there’s much more to learn and enjoy about the ladies.


Allison Guinn, Autumn Hurlbert, Paige Faure, Janet Dacal

Act II opens ten years later. The friends haven’t seen one another since Connie’s baby was born. Joan organizes a reunion with an ulterior motive. Dottie and she still live in Winnetka, the others have traveled to be there. New jobs, different partners and fresh perspectives abound.

There’s a son in Saigon, a biracial coupling, marijuana, women’s lib…lyrics are a bit more cliché: …we put our dreams on layaway; I can fly higher than the stars… a bit less clever, somewhat less musically diverse. Still, there are a few really good songs – Dottie has an hysterical hot mama turn centering on food – everything is directed with imagination and skill, choreography continues zesty and engaging. Joan shares her reason for bringing them together.

Oh, and they cook. “Swedish Meatballs?…The sauce is easy. A jar of grape jelly and a bottle of ketchup.”


Autumn Hurlbert, Allison Guinn, Paige Faure, Janet Dacal

All four actresses, cast to reflect different physical types, move and sing well. Additionally: Allison Guinn (Dottie) is a skilled comedienne with both verbal timing and physical mishap. Janet Dacal makes Agnes’s sexuality and ersatz transformation entirely believable. Autumn Hurlbert (Connie) imbues her character with the groundwork for gradual revelation and wears maternity with appealing humor. Paige Faure (Joan) handles narration with tongue ably in cheek and is a particularly graceful dancer.

Director/Choreographer Lorin Latarro seamlessly integrates movement/dance with kitchen chores and character exposition. Evidence of when and where we are is well planted. Furniture and unlikely props add ample amusement. Every woman appears whole in her attitudes and bearing. A superb job.

The wonderful Set by Steven C. Kemp is a turquoise, yellow and white, component kitchen with checkered linoleum floor. Its back wall features a montage of period advertisements. From starburst clock to chrome and vinyl breakfast set, every detail suits the period in its cheeriest form. The window/video screen is ingenious. Act II, set in 1967, is a smidgen less successful. Not that the change in furniture (and attitude) isn’t spot on, but during a time of breaking out, colors and style oddly grow more, not less conservative. A new back wall of hubcap-like disco lights is jarring.

Dana Burkhart’s Costumes are terrific in Act I, each individual expressed in outfits that work well together on stage. In Act II, however, though apparel is appropriate, the four ensembles look visually dissonant side by side.

The Taste of Things to Come was inspired by the experiences and recipes of Hollye Levin’s mother. Do not fail to read actual recipes of the period posted on a wall at The York. You never know when a tuna and jello mold or bananas hollandaise (with ham) might come in handy.

Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: Autumn Hurlbert, Allison Guinn, Paige Faure, Janet Dacal

The York Theatre Company
in association with Staci Levine and What’s Cookin’ LLC. presents
A Taste of Things to Come
Book, Music, and Lyrics: Debra Barsha and Hollye Levin
Music Direction: Gillian Berkowitz
Direction and Choreography: Lorin Latarro
The York Theatre at St. Peter’s
619 Lexington Avenue
Through December 11. 2016

Les Liaisons Dangereuses – Machiavelli Had Nothing On Them!


The original Royal Shakespeare/Broadway production of this piece with Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan was electric. From the moment Le Vicomte de Valmont (Liev Schreiber here) slithered into proximity of La Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer in this production) the stage crackled with wit, innuendo, and sexual anticipation. While outwardly meticulously proper, the Machiavellian power game played with others’ lives (and their own) is not just selfish and cruel, it’s rooted as firmly below the waist as it is in intellectual satisfaction.

There’s no denying both leads are excellent actors. The mercurial McTeer was far and away the best thing about this summer’s Taming of the Shrew in Central Park and Schreiber’s cable show Donovan has been well received, but the pair seems miscast,  she uncomfortable and he lost in translation. Had this Marquise been coupled with as strong a force of nature as herself, things might’ve gone very differently. (London reviews with another Valmont were raves.)

Les Liaisons Dangereuses Booth Theatre

Janet McTeer

Schreiber is stiff and brutish in a role that requires lascivious finesse. When calculation is apparent it’s rarely magnetic. A sword fight, however, is terrific, and its consequences well played. While McTeer has glorious moments of self-satisfaction and fury, she’s also forced to roll her eyes as her co-conspiritor peeps from behind a screen. Subtlety exhibited elsewhere is all but eliminated. We barely observe femininity or desire.

The fault lies partly in lack of balance and chemistry and partly in Director Josie Rourke’s rethinking the piece as a melodrama of mores and manners, not the vibrant life or death battle of the sexes its author intended.

Les Liaisons Dangeruses Booth Theatre

Liev Schreiber

We should have suspected how radically this production had changed things in the face of Tom Scutt’s beautifully dilapidated set: faded paint and peeling plaster, minimal furniture under diaphanous drop cloths, candelabras, floral arrangements, period art, and empty picture frames. We’re reminded of the wages of sin by omnipresent decay. As if this weren’t sufficient, contemporary lighting flickers out and rises up as chandeliers descend, so we’re made to distinguish then from now. Ghostly women sing oooo through set adjustments. The original production opened and remained in sensual opulence.

Conveniently a widow, La Marquise de Merteuil has the cleverness, position, resources, and backbone to organize her life and lovers as she chooses. Valmont is her amoral match. The pair, circling one another like feral, though eloquent beasts, had been, and might again be lovers. La Marquise, unaccountably thrown over before she’d been ‘finished,’ wishes revenge on an ex swain about to marry the very young Cecile Valances. (Elena Kampouris making an auspicious debut.) The man’s prize, she tells Valmont, is not Cecile’s inheritance, but her virginity. If he would kindly relieve the girl of her bud before marriage, The Marquise would be obliged.

Les Liaisons Dangeruses Booth Theatre

Elena Kampouris and Liev Schreiber

Valmont at first refuses. He feels Cecile is “…bound to be curious and on her back before the first bouquet of flowers…” i.e. the task is an unworthy challenge. He also has his own current agenda to seduce the unimpeachable Madame de Tourvel without, he adds, disabusing her faith. This would be an accomplishment that could only enhance his considerable reputation. (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen is a graceful, dignified, and then wretched Madame; brava.) When La Marquise offers herself, in exchange for written proof of the deflowering, Valmont agrees. They contrive to place both “victims” at the home of Valmont’s Aunt, Madame de Rosemonde (a superb Mary Beth Peil) whom he will shortly visit. Two birds, as it were, enticed onto one extended perch.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses Booth Theatre

Birgitte Hjort Sorensen and Liev Schreiber

Cecile’s gullible mother (the face-making Ora Jones), Emilie, one of Valmont’s courtesans (a credibly saucy Katrina Cunningham), and Le Chevalier Danceny – a young man besotted with Cecile who, alas, is beneath her while never actually getting beneath her (Raffi Barsoumian, who lacks naiveté ) – become mere pawns. With the help of a spying servant, a duplicitous maid, and the calculating false friendship of La Marquise, Valmont beds the teenager and baits the righteous, married Madame de Tourvel. (This is, alas, poorly depicted as a cold-blooded act, rather than exciting, if initially ambivalent discovery.)

We watch Cecile develop a taste for what’s been forbidden, potentially learning the ways of the world from a master (The Marquise), while Valmont unexpectedly gets enmeshed in a relationship with his prey (Madame de Tourval). The latter, a compelling surprise, revises all plans. La Marquise and Valmont reach a crossroads.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses Booth Theatre

Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber

This is a splendidly written piece of theater, full of smart double entendre, abject decadence and ultimate risk. Unfortunately, pace that should be scintillating too often lags. Our protagonists think (and act) on their feet, forcing reaction to be as swift or at least revealing wrenching effort. Because Josie Rourke’s vision lacks the guilty pleasure of enjoying the art of consummate manipulation, the horror of its outcome also diminishes.

Costume Design (also by Tom Scutt) is handsome but restrained. We never really get a sense of the luxury and excess that act as a Petrie dish for observed games. Mark Henderson’s Lighting cooperates beautifully with actual candles to great effect. Movement Director Lorin Latarro offers stylized motion without appearing awkward. Extremely believable swordplay is attributable to Fight Director Richard Ryan.

Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Janet McTeer, Liev Schreiber

The Donmar Warehouse Production of
Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton
From the 1782 novel by Choderlos de Laclos
Directed by Josie Rourke
Booth Theater
22 West 45th Street

Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater


Before Howard Ashman and Alan Menken hit pay dirt with Little Shop of Horrors, long before they became synonymous with reinvigorating Disney animated movies, 1979’s God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, based on the Kurt Vonnegut book, appeared briefly Off Broadway. Vonnegut’s sharp irreverence, couched first in science fiction, then as fantasy and finally as wry, humanist observation, was almost a rite of passage for a generation of smart young people enmeshed in alternative culture.

The author was older than many admirers, often referring to traumatic World War II experience beyond their ken, but shared with them a social conscience that emerged like a pendulum swinging between cynicism and idealism. This volume in particular might have been written by Bernie Sanders supporters.

Santino Fontana (Eliot)and the office staff

In the first minutes of the production, Eliot Rosewater (Santino Fontana) enters with a pratfall and haplessly donates $50,000 of his family’s foundation to a poet seeking immeasurably less.“Go and tell the truth,” he instructs the nonplussed writer. He’s devoted and he’s loaded/So we haven’t a complaint…sings his staff.

The Rosewater Foundation, created by Eliot’s U.S. Senator father (Clark Johnson) to help descendants avoid paying taxes on the estate, is based in New York City, not Rosewater, Indiana where the family manse stands empty. Though it’s “handled” by a large legal firm, Eliot has inherited control. He wears the crown uncomfortably and is often drunk. Obsessions include Volunteer Fire Departments (we learn why later) and a science fiction novelist named Kilgore Trout who is quoted and later appears as the voice of “real” sanity. (James Earl Jones). A psychiatrist deems Eliot incurable for reasons of not gratefully toeing the gilded line.

Despite, or perhaps because of, advantages, the young man couldn’t be more of the people. As written and expertly acted, Eliot seems like sweet, slightly obtuse Charlie Brown with an adult conscience. Equally uneasy in the upper echelon lifestyle curetted by loving wife Sylvia (Brynn O’Malley), frustration builds until our hero decides he must go in search of his destiny and disappears. Letters arrive from Hamlet to Ophelia, the escapee’s perception of himself and Sylvia. The other is Volunteer Fire Departments. We learn about this fixation later.

Encores! Off-Center Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Skylar Astin (Norman Mushari)

Meanwhile, Norman Mushari (Skylar Astin), a young lawyer at the firm, learns of a codicil in the Rosewater Foundation set-up that states Eliot can be replaced by another family member if he’s proved mentally unstable. The ambitious associate recalls what his professors told him about getting ahead in law. “… just as a good airplane pilot should always be looking for places to land, so should a lawyer be looking for situations where large amounts of money were about to change hands.” One practically sees Eureka! flash over his head.

Leap-frogging Volunteer Fire Departments across the country (including a delightfully staged musical number), Eliot also has a eureka moment and returns to his depressed hometown. He opens the house, sets up an office, and becomes Rosewater’s defacto therapist and philanthropist (black telephone), as well as a member of the Volunteer Fire Department (red telephone.)

Encores! Off-Center Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Brynn O’Malley (Sylvia) and the townspeople

We meet and compassionately hear from raggle-taggle citizens who grow to think of him as a Saint. Aspiring to be supportive, Sylvia arrives, and tries, how she tries to fit in! Eventually, however, his patrician spouse has a meltdown at a meticulously planned soiree when her guests prefer Cheese Nips to pate and coke to champagne. Brynn O’Malley’s deadpan apoplexy is as convincing as her love for and incomprehension of Eliot.

Encores! Off-Center Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Kate Wetherhead (Caroline Rosewater), Kevin Del Aguila (Fred Rosewater)

While Eliot is altruistically fulfilling himself, Norman has found Fred (Kevin Del Aguila) and Caroline (Kate Wetherhead) Rosewater, in, wait for it, Pisquontuit, Rhode Island. The couple are bickering malcontents not adverse to swindling rich relatives. Both actors are marvelous in the deftly staged “Rhode Island Tango” and apple-pie-corny “Plain Clean Average Americans.” It appears to be a slam dunk, but of course, is not.

Narrative displays several signature Vonnegut themes, the familiar device of God-like narration (James Earl Jones), and characters found in other books by the author. Lack of this awareness in no way impedes enjoyment. There’s also a brief scene from one of Kilgore Trout’s space adventures – a disconnect, but very funny.  Howard Ashman’s book and lyrics are literate, specific, and filled with heart. Alan Menken’s music is, well, fine. This was their first collaboration.

Encores! Off-Center Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Santino Fontana, James Earl Jones (Kilgore Trout) and company members

Santino Fontana’s embodiment of Eliot is consistently engaging and sympathetic. Really, one wants to take him home to mom. The actor is completely natural and has an appealing voice.

Skylar Ashton (Norman Mushari), who looks too much like Fontana, is a solid player but could have more fun with numbers like “Mushari’s Waltz” in which his ballet seems restrained.

James Earl Jones literally lends resonance to the piece. His Kilgore Trout is a credible curmudgeon.

Of the townsfolk, Rebecca Naomi Jones (Mary Moody), Liz McCartney  (Diana Moon Glampers), and Kevin Ligon (Selbert Peach) shine.

Director Michael Mayer uses Donayle Werle’s simply structured Set with skill and aesthetic variety. A fire pole and hose are used to great effect. Small stage business adds immeasurably. Heart and humor go hand in hand.

Choreography by Lorin Latarro is beguiling. Leon Rothenberg’s Sound Design couldn’t be crisper or better balanced.

Another terrific production by Encores.

Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: The Company

New York City Center Encores! Off-Center presents
Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
Book & Lyrics-Howard Ashman
Additional Lyrics Dennis Green
Music-Alan Menken
Directed by Michael Mayer
City Center
131 West 55th Street

I Have Confidence: Rodgers After Hammerstein – Eloquent and Entertaining


92Y’s estimable Lyrics & Lyricists series ended its current season with a bang as the excellent Ted Chapin, President & Chief Creative Officer of Rodgers & Hammerstein, presented an evening illuminating Richard Rodgers and his work after the death of iconic collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II.

Not just a celebration, the show gave us a glimpse into the artist’s behavior, philosophy and process. This was imaginatively accomplished with a combination of excerpts from filmed interviews with the composer, his family, and associates, narrative by our knowledgeable host, and actor Larry Pine playing the honoree, utilizing Rodger’s own words. Chapin’s light touch and selectivity are always a pleasure. Pine is terrific, not just reading, but embodying the celebrant. Pleasing arrangements by Joseph Thalken, Charming Stage Direction/Choreography by Lorin Latarro, and evocative Projections by Matthew Haber, create a well crafted show.

Jeremy Clayton, woodwinds Cenovia Cummins, violin Kevin Kuhn, guitar Pete Donovan, bass Warren Odze, drums

Larry Pine as Richard Rodgers

“There is no valid reason for hiding honest emotion.” Richard Rodgers

Chapin divides Richard Rodgers life into three chapters: collaboration with Lorenz Hart in the 1920s and 1930s, collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II through World War II, and a robust afterward reflected in tonight’s show. “If I am successful,” Pine declares as Rodgers, “I know full well it’s because some of the talents of Oscar and Larry (Hart) have rubbed off on me.”

Rodgers lyric writing began with the updated 1962 remake of the film State Fair starring Ann Margaret, Pat Boone and Bobby Darren- not exactly performers to whom one might turn for a Rodgers and Hammerstein interpretation, and continued in tandem with composing through his last musical, 1979’s I Remember Mama.

We hear songs from and stories about No Strings, the film of The Sound of Music ,  Do I Hear a Waltz? (lyrics-Stephen Sondheim), Androcles and the Lion, Two by Two (lyrics Martin Charnin),  Rex (lyrics Sheldon Harnick) and I Remember Mama (lyrics Martin Charnin) as performed by four talented vocalists, each of whom had best moments.

Jeremy Clayton, woodwinds Cenovia Cummins, violin Kevin Kuhn, guitar Pete Donovan, bass Warren Odze, drums

Karen Ziemba

Karen Ziemba, too long away from the Broadway stage, captivated with a rendition of “Loads of Love” (No Strings) which offered characterization, grace and infectious brightness. Every major theater turned the show down because it crossed a color line with its interracial relationship. It landed on 54th Street.

“I know I give the appearance of not being sentimental, but this isn’t true. I believe people have an emotional need for melody just as they need food.” Richard Rodgers

Subdued until her performance of “Someone Woke Up,” Leona’s joyful discovery of Venice from Do I Hear a Waltz?, Betsy Wolfe irresistibly tries to take in everything at once. A perfect ingenue, she moves with ease and innocence. Contralto is confident and appealing, soaring without stress. Rodgers felt that trying to emulate the sound of a place or culture was a mistake and stuck to his own musical ideas wherever and whenever a musical was located.


Betsy Wolfe; Ben Crawford

A buoyant “What Do We Do? We Fly!” from the same show is performed by the company. Ostensibly crammed into tiered airline seats, they gesture and complain with graphic frustration.

Ben Crawford’s vocals, though technically lovely, seem self conscious until he inhabits Noah in “Ninety Again” from Two by Two. Singing to and flirting with his astonished wife, Esther, cavorting all over the stage like a gleeful 17 year-old, ending with a buck-and-wing and push-ups, Crawford’s throat opens to reveal resonance and sincerity. The Broadway show’s esteemed star, Danny Kaye, tore a ligament, returned in a wheelchair, and became ungovernable, ad-libbing and pinching the ladies.

The song is followed by “An Old Man” performed by Ziemba as Esther. The hug that he gives you is hardly a hug…Accompanied only by piano, the actress brims with weathered affection. It’s truly touching.


Ted Chapin

Chapin tells us a sweet story shared by lyricist Sheldon Harnick who was nervous working with the forbidding Rodgers at a time in his life when the composer needed lyric structure on which to build. Harnick was fearful of being graded and found wanting, yet Rodgers appeared visibly relieved when his new collaborator expressed enthusiasm at the setting of an early tune.

Crawford and Wolfe offer “Away From You” (Rex), a song played for Andrew Lloyd Weber by his father who considered it one of the best melodies of the 20th century. (Rodgers was Lloyd Weber’s idol.) Both performers are engaging, strings add winning texture.

Jeremy Clayton, woodwinds Cenovia Cummins, violin Kevin Kuhn, guitar Pete Donovan, bass Warren Odze, drums

T.Oliver Reid

“Strangers” (Androcles and the Lion) is begun by T. Oliver Reid whose gentle, cottony delivery floats the lyrics. He and Betsy Wolfe, who joins the expressive duet, aptly end up back to back on a stool. Reid’s vibrato-filled “I Do Not Know a Day I Didn’t Love You” (Two by Two) sounds like operetta. His precise tenor seems swept away by emotion.

We close with the company’s “Sing Me a Song” (Rex), a waltz by an artist one can arguably call America’s waltz king. It’s an oom-pah-pah arrangement, at one point even vocally simulating a calliope. Everyone’s smiling.

Richard Rodgers was by all reports an outwardly  gruff man- something writer Sherman Yellen recognized as symptomatic of his generation, and an alcoholic, yet wrote some of the most timeless, romantic melodies in the annals of American music (not to mention unexpected lyrics.) His work is immortal. Ted Chapin has more than done Rodgers justice with this eloquent evening.


Joseph Thalken (piano), Karen Ziemba, T.Oliver Reid, Ben Crawford, Betsy Wolfe

Theater novices are often teased by veterans into looking for the key to the curtain. “I’ve been in the theater more than half a century…all my life I’ve been looking for that key and I’m still looking.” Richard Rodgers

Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Joseph Thalken (piano), Ben Crawford, Betsy Wolfe, T.Oliver Reid, Karen Ziemba

92Y Lyrics & Lyricists presents
I Have Confidence: Rodgers After Hammerstein
Ted Chapin-Artistic Director/Writer/Host
Joseph Thalken-Music Director/Arrangements/ Orchestrations
Based on a concept by Bill Rudman of “On the Aisle”
92Y at Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street
Next Season’s Lyrics & Lyricists begins with Get Happy: Harold Arlen’s Early Years
January 2017

Waitress – Heart and Talent, But…


On the one hand, Waitress is yet another story of a blue collar, abused woman who finds the strength to walk out of a loveless marriage into an independent life. On the other, its setting – a southern Pie Shop/Diner and ancillary characters are so winning, the story almost seems fresh.

This is partially due to one of the most well written Books created for a musical in as long as I can remember. Author Jessie Wilson is smart, sensitive, insightful, and humorous. She reveals more about a character in a few lines than others attempt in paragraphs when not dependent on lyrics. (More about these later.) Brava. It’s also attributable to some splendid performances.

Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller, Kimiko Glenn

By all rights this should be Jessie Mueller’s second Tony Award. The artist acts as well as she sings (here with a perfect southern accent), thinks before our eyes, and offers the kind of universal, everywoman appeal we haven’t had in a Broadway leading lady for some time. How long has it been since you were moved during a musical?

For those of you unfamiliar with the film, Jenna (Jessie Mueller), is married to sullen, demeaning, beer guzzling Earl (Nick Codero) who demands every penny she earns. The actor literally makes one wince he’s so convincing. Beaten down/fearful and unable to imagine managing alone, she sticks. (We learn her father was like Earl.)

Jenna doubles as waitress and talented pie baker at a highway Diner/Pie Shop run by cliché/irascible Cal (a pitch perfect Eric Anderson). On the menu are, in part: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee Pie, Devil’s Food Oasis Pie, Ginger Snap Out of It Pie, and Humble Crumble Rhubarb Pie. Throughout the piece, the young woman muses on recipes with titles that are metaphors of what’s going on in her life.

Keala Settle, Kimiko Glenn

Jenna’s only emotional support come from her fellow servers, Sassy, smart-alek, grounded Becky (Keala Settle) and gawky, virginal, Dawn (Kimiko Glenn), whom the ladies are trying to ease into the dating pool. Settle has a fine R & B voice and acts up a storm in her modest role. Glenn’s voice walks the line of screechy, but the actress delivers comedy with flair.

Flinty diner regular, Joe (Dakin Matthews), whose meal stipulations are exacting, also turns out to be unexpectedly perceptive about and sympathetic to Jenna’s difficulties. Unsurprisingly, the veteran actor is charming.

The diner, as conceived by Set Designer Scott Pask is cheerful-Hollywood-musical appealing if you don’t take notice of the piano loaded up with pies and the ostensibly invisible, on-stage band. (Is this necessary?!) Kitchen scenes are called out by wheeled, gridwork, storage shelves making transitions fluid. An ever present backdrop of bleak roadway with telephone poles reminds us where we are.

One night, Earl plies Jenna with liquor and, much to her shock and distress, impregnates her. (Betrayed By My Eggs Pie) Confection in hand, she visits her gynecologist only to discover the woman’s retired. Instead she finds the newly installed, sweet but seemingly bumbling Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling). Jenna tells him she’d prefer not to be congratulated.

Drew Gehling, Jessie Mueller

The two are immediately attracted. Though the doc declares he’s given up sugar, she leaves her pie. Watching him hesitantly sniff, taste, then gorge on it with eyes glazing over is magical. The audience erupts. Her concoctions, he later tells Jenna, are “Biblically good.”

Drew Gehling, with whom I am unfamiliar, is enchanting. The Andrew Garfield lookalike is progressively drawn, besotted, and lustful with such gusto and authenticity, he take us unquestioningly along. Thespian skills include physical comedy, an engaging voice and the ability to shift to believable gravitas.

As Jenna’s belly grows, she and Pomatter give in to a needful, exhilarating affair observed by wry Nurse Norma (Charity Angel Dawson). Stage direction of the couple’s encounters is exuberant, credible and rather hot. Along the way, Earl discovers his wife is pregnant and makes her promise never to love the baby more than him. This, he obtusely assumes, cements their commitment. (White Knuckle Cream Pie.)

Nick Cordero, Jessie Mueller

The only plausible answer to Jenna’s situation appears with the announcement of a pie contest whose prize is $20,000. Hopeful of escape, she starts to sequester money around the house for the entrance fee. At leisure after losing his job “…so it looks like you’ll be payin’ the bills around here,” Earl finds the cash. He’s furious. Now what?!

A secondary storyline involves Dawn’s resistant involvement with Ogie (the masterfully cast Christopher Fitzgerald) whom she initially connects with online. Her suitor is a geeky looking (think Book of Mormon) tax auditor and amateur magician who only eats white foods on Wednesday. Ogie turns up at the diner and doggedly refuses to leave until promised at least a second date. He knows what he wants.

Christopher Fitzgerald, Kimiko Glenn, Aisha Jackson

“Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” is one of the best numbers in the show, not the least because of the fleet-footed, pixilated Mr. Fitzgerald who highjacks our hearts. Not since he played Og (from Og to Ogie), the leprechaun in Finian’s Rainbow, has the actor had an opportunity like this to excel. Spot-on timing, priceless expressions, and a spastic jig are but a few examples of virtuosity. The things Ogie and Dawn have in common couldn’t be more quirky and amusing. A later glimpse at Revolutionary interest is inspired.

Waitress may be the best, warmest, least fussy staging ever executed by Director Diane Paulus. While we’re familiar with her all-bets-are-off production numbers – these, in fact, seem more character specific – intimate scenes are executed with restraint and finesse.

Choreographer Lorin Latarro makes his dances organic and fun.

Jessie Mueller, Dakin Matthews

NOW, lets talk about music and lyrics, the least effective part of the show. But for one or two songs, Sara Bareilles’ music is close to tuneless, her lyrics so pedestrian as to pass with little effect, her orchestrations dense. How she managed to feature in this production is a wonder.

Costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlab show real knowledge of locale, economics, and personality. Jonathan Dreans’s Sound Design is poor. Bass and drums too often drown out lyrics. Balance is nonexistent.

Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Jessie Mueller

Book by Jessie Nelson
Music & Lyrics by Sara Barielles
Based on the film written by Adrienne Shelly
Directed by Diane Paulus
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 West 47th Street