As the star of the show, Jessie Mueller, leads the performance tonight for the final time, I thought it was a good time to write about how lucky I feel to have been able to catch one of her last appearances.
It has been on Broadway for just under one year, but it felt completely fresh when we saw a matinee performance on a drizzly Saturday afternoon.
The first thing you notice as you walk through the doors at he Repertory is the smell of delicious baking pies. They have pies on sale; I have no idea how I resisted.
The hallway is decked out like the inside of a café and bakery, with some themed merchandise available. Walking past this and into the theatre, you’re greeted with a stage set that starts to tell the story – pies up the wall providing an edge to the proscenium arch and curtains that would soon reveal a bustling and busy Joe’s Diner, where most of our story is set.
The story is based on the 2007 film of the same name. Jenna Hunterson (Mueller) is a waitress in the aforementioned café somewhere in the deepest heart of southern USA. Every day she bakes a new flavour of fresh pie, much to the delight of the frequently-returning customers. She is in a dead-end relationship with aggressive musician Earl (William Popp) and feels her job isn’t going anywhere either. Instead, she gives herself fully to the sugar, butter and flour of her baking, daydreaming as she recalls happier times as a child when she baked with her mother. Her close friendship to two work colleagues – the positively sassy Becky (Charity Angél Dawson) and nervous Dawn (Caitlin Houlahan) – helps her retain her sanity. When she finds out she’s unexpectedly pregnant with Earl’s child, she has to take a visit to her doctor. However, her regular doctor has now retired and has been replaced with the young and handsome Dr Jim Pomatter (Drew Gehling), who appears as interested in Jenna as he is with her fantastic baking ability.
There were some hot tickets on Broadway the week we visited, with Inside Evan Hansen and a previewing Hello, Dolly! garnering the most interest outside the top tier musicals Like Hamilton, The Lion King and The Book of Mormon. It was, therefore, a shock to discover just how good this musical is, with a plot as deep as one of Jenna’s deep-dish blueberry pies.
This is a musical that touches on failed life goals, unwanted pregnancies, extra-marital affairs and the acceptance of compromise. It’s all done, for the most part, with a touch of humour and grace that elevates the more sombre moments.
But it doesn’t just stop there. Most of the plot and delivery is taken or derived from the story of the original film, so the thing that really sets it apart from its origins is the fine music provided by Sara Barielles. The songs are suitably pitched somewhere between Americana and country, perfect for the setting. They are simply excellent songs.
The comedy pairing of Dawn and Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald) supplies plenty of laughs and they are given two of the most memorable songs: “When He Sees Me” and “Never Gonna Let You Go”. Becky gets her chance to shine early in the second half with “I Didn’t Plan It”. But it is inevitably Jenna that gets the opportunity to wow the audiences with some of the best songs in a new musical this decade: show opener “What’s Inside?”, “What Baking Can Do” and “Everything Changes”.
Losing an iconic star of a musical always risks feeling like the end of a chapter, though with show writer Sara Bareilles ready to step into the role she created there is a sense of excitement over where it will go. Losing Mueller is a great loss and her infectious enthusiasm for the show has clearly affected the whole cast. With the male leads also being replaced the whole show will feel completely refreshed (Chris Diamantopoulous and Will Swenson take over as Dr. Pomatter and Earl respectively on 31st March).
Here’s hoping the changes to the cast will breathe yet more life into it and see its popularity grow.