Some things never change, according to the song that opens this film of the Broadway stage production. But as the final song reminds us, some things do change, and what happens between are the kinds of changes that happen to us and the changes we make happen. The Tony-nominated musical is based on a beloved 2007 film starring Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion.
The title character is played by the show’s composer and lyricist, Sara Bareilles. Jenna is a waitress in a small Southern café with a gift for making pies so blissfully delicious they make people happy. The first hint that change is coming is in her song about the constants: sugar, butter, flower, with the ever-new answer to the question, “What’s inside?” The pies are the only part of her life where Jenna does not feel stuck. Every day she comes up with imaginative new recipes with colorful names, often a reference to feelings she does not otherwise express. In the first scene she discovers she is pregnant by her abusive husband, Earl (Joe Tippett), and she glumly says her next pastry will be called “Betrayed by My Eggs Pie.”
The show is smoothly staged before an appreciative audience, with well-chosen theatrical touches. The simplified sets – café, Jenna’s modest living room, Jim’s doctor’s office – swing in and out, suggesting the locations without trying to be too detailed. In one particularly effective musical number, the furniture from one location slides away mid-song, leaving Jenna on an almost-bare stage, indicating both her growing sense of dislocation and of possibility. When Jenna goes to the doctor’s office, a trio of pregnant women sing her a welcome to “Club Knock-up.” We are always aware that it is a play, but close-ups, camera movement, and editing keep us it from feeling stage-y. Surprisingly, one close-up features a real infant, though presumably the stage production used a swaddled prop. Seeing Jenna smile down at the tiny fingers moving on the blanket creates a heart-twisting moment of tenderness.
The café where Jenna works is owned by a cranky older man named Joe (Dakin Matthews) and run by an even crankier short-order cook, Cal (Eric Anderson). Earl takes every penny Jenna earns and his reaction to the pregnancy is to insist she promise she will never love the baby more than she loves him. Her only comfort is baking the pies, and her only support is from the two other waitresses, the sweet but shy Dawn (Caitlin Houlahan) and the outspoken Becky (Charity Angél Dawson). When Cal snarls, “You’re pushing all my buttons today,” she snaps back, “Which is the mute button?”
Jenna’s doctor is the lovably gawky Dr. James “Jim” Pomatter (Drew Gehling), new in town. He has a delightfully awkward Buster Keaton-esque grab-and-drop with a prescription that keeps slipping from his fingers. When Jenna offers him pie, he explains that he does not eat sugar. She quotes her mother, who taught her how to make pies: “You can live to be 100 if you give up all the things that make you want to live to 100.” He takes a taste and is quickly overwhelmed by the pie and by Jenna, too.
The other waitresses have romantic encounters as well. Becky and Jenna help Dawn (played by writer/director Adrienne Shelly in the endearing 2007 film) write a profile for a dating service. She meets Ogie (scene-stealer Christopher Fitzgerald), a fellow Revolutionary War re-enactor, and impromptu poet. His “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” song and dance comes across as ardent, rather than stalker-y (even with lyrics like “I will never let you let me leave”) entirely due to his irresistible charm. Bareilles’ eloquent lyrics, touch of country melodies, sweet voice, and sincere delivery show us that the way Jim sees her, the prospect of a prize from a big local pie-baking contest, and, most of all, the longing to be the kind of mother that her mother was for her give Jenna an idea of what changes may be possible. A note at the end dedicates the film to Shelly, who was murdered in 2006, and to Nick Cordero, Earl in the original Broadway cast, who died of COVID in the early months of the pandemic, another reminder that no one should wait to follow dreams.
In theaters today.