Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The show's book, by Jessie Nelson, closely follows the late Adrienne Shelly's screenplay. It revolves around a waitress named Jenna whose gift is the ability to invent pies named for the emotions circulating in her mind on any given day. Well, not just their invention, but the execution of the most delicious pies any who tastes them has ever known. In addition to her daily special, Jenna is responsible for baking all 26 varieties of pies regularly available at Joe's Diner, a restaurant that would be nondescript were it not for Jenna's extraordinarily descript pies.
Jenna is beloved at Joe's where she works in devout sisterhood with two other waitresses, Becky (the brash and straight-to-the-point one) and Dawn (the gawky and painfully shy one), along with grill cook Cal–short tempered with a spatula of gold. Unfortunately, home is a nightmare for Jenna, whose childhood of witnessing her mother's abuse at the hands of her father is being replicated in her marriage to Earl, whose ill manners and demands on Jenna make her work at the diner a true refuge. Very early in the show, Jenna learns she is pregnant, and a bit later she finds that her handsome obstetrician is a kind, sensitive, and supportive man. We can guess that Jenna will have some big decisions to make, ones that don't involve selections from the menu.
Her decisions, and speculations about her life's prospects, are given voice in Bareilles' lovely score. There are also songs given to subplots involving Becky, Dawn and Cal, and an old time regular customer who comments on Jenna's life like a cranky Greek chorus. Truly, the score is quite amazing when one considers that it expresses a wide range of feelings–from a plea for a negative pregnancy test to the ache of caring deeply for a someone who can never be yours. The score advances and illuminates the plot in language true to the characters, and bearing a consistency borne of Bareilles' quirky melodies that seem to curl and twist and take the form of the person whose life condition is being expressed. Well, there is the throwaway "Club Knocked Up," but one can forgive a solitary lapse.
Waitress' original director, Diane Paulus, created a show that is almost always in motion. Though the dancing is fairly tame (Lorin Latarro's original choreography fits its context aptly enough without capturing much of the attention), set pieces are continuously hustled in and out by the hard-working ensemble, and luscious looking pies seem forever to be circling around Jenna as thoughts spiral in her mind. The fluidity of the show makes it seem to run its course on a single long, deep breath.
Jisel Soleil Ayon, in her national tour debut, is an attractive and endearing Jenna, drawing us in to care about her and the turmoil in her life. The heart-wrenching eleven o'clock number "She Used to Be Mine" is her big opportunity, and she doesn't waste it. Then again, the beautiful song is a gift to any actor. David Socolar pushes Dr. Pomatter's nervous, socially awkward behavior too far by a half measure, but has an appealing presence and a pleasing voice. Socolar and Ayon harmonize nicely while considering the wisdom of their heated desires in the angsty "It's a Bad Idea."
Dominique Kent has some of the show's best moments as the feisty Becky and raises the roof in "I Didn't Plan It." Gabriella Marzetta and Brian Lundy form a well-matched pair as Dawn and Ogie, and Lundy has the most impressive moves of anyone in the show. Shawn W. Smith gives Earl, the swine Jenna married, an undercurrent of sympathy–yes, he is despicable, but it is hard not to pity him just a bit for his ignorance. Jake Hills is likeable as the grizzled cook Cal, and Michael R. Douglas sets the right balance between grouch and gramps as Joe. In her small role as Nurse Norma, Dayna Marie Quincy lands every laugh that comes her way.
The physical production is rock solid. The set designed by Scott Pask ingeniously moves to shift scenes between Joe's Diner, Dr. Pomatter's office, and Jenna and Earl's aptly dreary living room. Suttirat Anne Larlarb's costumes are an appropriate image of the workaday world of these characters. Ken Billington's lighting sets the tones and draw our focus to the desired spot on stage at any given moment.
One small note: While the difference between this being a non-Equity tour, as opposed to the first tour, which employed members of Actors' Equity Association, may be fine-grained in terms of the caliber of performers, the character Lulu, a very small part but still significant, was played by a live actor in the original, and here has been replaced by an inanimate stand-in. Just saying.
As March is Women's History Month, it is worth noting that Waitress is one of the rare musicals whose principal creative team is comprised wholly of women: bookwriter Jessie Nelson, composer and lyricist Sara Bareilles, director Diane Paulus, and choreographer Lorin Latarro. As the story it cradles is of a woman who, in spite of her gifts and the support that encircles her, is trapped in her life–until, by summoning her own strength, she isn't–the confluence of the show, its creators and the month is completely fitting.
Waitress runs through March 13, 2022, at the Ordway, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets from $44.00 - $122.00. Educator and high school/college student rush tickets 30 minutes before curtain, two tickets per valid ID. For tickets and information call 651-224-4222 or go to Ordway.org. For more information on the tour, visit waitresstour.com.
Book: Jessie Nelson, based upon the motion picture written by Adrienne Shelly; Music and Lyrics: Sara Bareilles; Director: Diane Paulus; Tour direction recreated by: Susanna Wolk; Choreographer: Lorin Latarro; Tour choreography recreated by Abbey O"Brien; Set Design: Scott Pask; Costume Design: Suttirat Anne Larlarb; Lighting Design: Ken Billington; Sound Design: Jonathan Deans; Wig and Makeup Design: Richard Mawbey; Additional Wig and Makeup Design: Destinee Steele; Orchestrations: Sara Bareilles and the Waitress Band: Original Music Supervision: Nadia DiGiallonardo; Tour Music Supervisor: Ryan Cantwell; Music Director: Alyssa Kay Thompson; Casting: Stewart/Whitely; Associate Production Stage Manager: Ryan W. Gardner.
Cast: Jisel Soleil Ayon (Jenna), Michael R. Douglass (Joe), Elvie Ellis (ensemble), Stephanie Feeback (Francine, ensemble), Dominique Kent (Becky), Olivia London (Mother/ensemble), Brian Lundy (Ogie), Gabriella Marzetta (Dawn), Jake Mills (Cal), José Monge (ensemble), Dayna Marie Quincy (Nurse Norma/ ensemble), Zoe Brooke Reed (ensemble), Shawn W. Smith (Earl), David Socolar (Dr. Pomatter), Woody White (Father/ensemble)