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Sunday, November 07, 2021

‘Waitress’ Serves Up Fun No Matter How You Slice It

Photo: Jeremy Daniel
After a seemingly interminable absence due to the pandemic, Broadway is back to Baltimore with a brief two-day visit to the Hippodrome by the national touring production of Waitress. (The theater has implemented protocols to keep the audience and employees safe including mask requirements while inside and proof of vaccinations prior to entry.)

The long wait for Broadway musicals to return to the Hippodrome was rewarded by a high-energy, often hilarious, and at times emotional presentation of Waitress. 

It is hard to imagine that themes, such as an unwanted pregnancy, an abusive husband, adultery, and sexual encounters in the workplace would keep you laughing until your eyes tear, but here we are with Waitress. To be sure, the instances when these themes are addressed are also handled tenderly and with great emotion. The mixture is effective.

Waitress may not be the most well-known musical to ever hit the stage but it is an excellent one. It garnered four Tony Award nominations in 2016 including Best Musical. It had successful stints on Broadway and London’s West End as well as other locales. The all-female creative team includes music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles and a book by Jessie Nelson and is based on the 2007 film of the same name, written by Adrienne Shelly.

Accordingly, there is a palpable amount of feminism laced throughout as the story deals with the veracity of the lives of working women in America and how women bond to help bring out the best in each.

The multi-layered plot centers on Jenna Hunterson, a baker and waitress at Joe’s Diner in a small Southern town. She has a penchant for creating magnificent pies and coming up with clever names for them based on the situation. Many of her recipes originated with her late mother but Jenna concocts some pies on the fly. There are pies galore in this show, and thankfully they are not the kind seen in Sweeney Todd.

Her problem is that she is in loveless relationship with her temper-prone husband Earl who is abusive and demanding. As an example, he regularly pops in the diner and collects the tips she earned while he habitually shows up late for work and is constantly on the precipice of being fired.

You would think Jenna would have left him given this toxic relationship. Easy as pie? Not so fast. Complicating matters is that Jenna discovered she was unexpectedly pregnant as a result of a drunken night with Earl—a development in which she kept from him until she blurted it out right before he attempted to strike her.  

Jenna attempts to escape from this misery by finding solace in baking pies and also from the companionship of her two close friends in the diner, waitresses Becky and Dawn.  The trio serves as confidants to one another and provides the moral support needed to escape from their ho-hum existence and to make choices to seek the joy that had been missing from their lives. Each reveals their own bit of eccentricities as they embark on this journey.

Jenna’s baking prowess leads her to consider entering a pie baking contest that would award $20,000 to the winner and enable her to leave Earl.

Adding another element to the plot is that Jenna has fallen for her handsome gynecologist Dr. Jim Pomatter, who as it turns out, is also married, and the two have sex in his office.

Meanwhile, Becky, also married, begins an affair with Cal, a manager at the diner, and Dawn finds love from a hilariously gawky goofball she met online.

So, there you go. The ingredients for this pie of a plot are in place. It’s just a matter of how they are mixed and with the right proportions to make it tasty. Spoiler alert: it is tasty!

Ms. Bareilles’ ballad-heavy score is solid with many numbers heart-wrenching and tender, such as “She Used to Be Mine” and “Take it From an Old Man.”  Some are simply playful and much fun like “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.” The show starts off on the right foot with the snappy number “What’s Inside.”

As the central character Jenna, Jisel Soleil Ayon excels on all fronts. Her acting is strong in portraying the victim trapped in her marriage and the anguish she experiences in confronting the reality of her pregnancy as well as her dealing with infidelity. Her soprano voice is crystal clear and powerful, holding notes exceptionally. Ms. Ayon’s solos “What Baking Can Do” and “She Used to Be Mine” showcase her vocal talent.

Kennedy Salters as Becky, one of the waitresses, fills the comedy role with relish. Sassy and loud, Ms. Salters demonstrates impeccable comedic timing with her wisecracking antics directed mainly towards her boss Cal (played effectively by Jake Mills). Always on the edge of being fired by Cal, Becky intimidates him enough to stay on and has an affair with Cal though she, too, is in an unfulfilling marriage. Ms. Salters joins other cast members in song but her one solo number “I Didn’t Plan It” soars.

The third waitress in the musical is Dawn played wonderfully by Gabriella Marzetta.  A shy, quirky type, Dawn is another who plays a largely comedic role. Through online dating, she meets a guy named Ogie (played terrifically by Brian Lundy) whose handle is oddly OKCBullet. Initially, it was hate at first sight from Dawn’s perspective, but once they found out they both loved American Revolution re-enactments, it was just a matter of time that they would marry.

Mr. Lundy’s Ogie is a scene stealer with his nerdy looks including trousers pulled way up high. He sang in “I Love You Like a Table” but his performance in “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” where he briefly showed off his clog dancing talents is a genuine show stopper.

David Socolar as the gynecologist Dr. Pomatter is one of the show’s standouts. Nimble physically with astounding comedic timing, Mr. Socolar turns in a superb performance as his character navigates the tricky terrain of adultery as he falls deeply for his patient Jenna. There were many funny lines, and he executed them to perfection. Mr. Socolar performs splendidly with Ms. Ayon in “It Only Takes a Taste,” “Bad Idea” and the tender ballad You Matter to Me,” displaying a smooth tenor voice.

Then there is the villain of the show, Earl, Jenna’s arrogant and manipulative husband, played convincingly by Shawn W. Smith. So effective was Mr. Smith’s acting skills that there was a smattering of boos from the audience at curtain call. His nice duet with Ms. Ayon in “You Will Still Be Mine” follows his request that Jenna will not love the baby more than him.

Michael R. Douglass as Joe, the aging, cranky, picky and generous owner of Joe’s Diner, is excellent in his role. He is a fan of Jenna and encourages her to participate in the pie contest. Mr. Douglass’ performance in the lovely ballad, “Take it From an Old Man,” is touching. The surprise ending involving Joe is a game changer on several levels.

Rounding out the excellent cast Vanessa Magula who deliciously plays Nurse Norma. She is wise to Dr. Pomatter’s antics and is hilarious with her reactions.

The talented Ensemble support the leads with vocal back-up and occasional dancing. Also, providing a musical lift is the 6 –piece on-stage orchestra conducted ably by Alyssa Kay Thompson.

Scott Pask’s set design is extremely effective in its simplicity and functionality. Much of the action takes place in the diner with its kitchen, tables, counter and other set pieces that depict the small town eatery. A projection screen displays the flat, nearly barren vista one would see in the rural South. Other scenes switch seamlessly to the doctor’s office, Jenna and Earl’s home among other venues.

Also, Ken Billington’s lighting design and Jonathan Dean’s sound design enhance the quality of the production.

Waitress is a musical with a wonderful score that takes on serious issues with a good heart and levity. The performers excel in all facets and the show makes for a most entertaining evening tempting the audience to indulge in pies soon after. It is a pity that Waitress visited Baltimore for only two days but it hopefully will return soon.

Running time: Two hours and 35 minutes.

Advisory: The show contains mature themes and sexual situations and is not recommended for young children.

To view the Hippodrome’s upcoming season, visit here

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