Kennedy Salters, Jisel Soleil Ayon & Gabriella Marzetta in Waitress. Credit: Jeremy Daniel
Book by Jessie Nelson, Music & Lyrics by Sara Bareilles
Based upon the motion picture written by Adrienne Shelly
Original Director – Diane Paulus
Tour Direction Recreated by Susanna Wolk
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2021 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Broadway in Louisville President Leslie Broecker strode onto the Whitney stage to remind us that it had been over 600 days since the last time her organization had brought a national tour into Louisville. In June 2018 a fire had left the building damaged just enough to force the cancellation of all performances, including the first national tour of Waitress, while extensive renovations (underway when the fire broke out) and cleaning could be finished. Then, just as the rescheduled Waitress was about to open, the COVID pandemic erupted in March of 2020.
So this show has had quite the difficult road to reach Louisville audiences. Was it worth the wait? What should we expect a show to deliver after two years of anticipation? If you are hoping for epic scale musical theatre like Les Miserables or The Phantom of the Opera, you may be disappointed, because Waitress is a more modest show in its conception, and that is exactly its strength.
As a movie, Waitress was a quirky, humane comedy about female empowerment encased in a warm and cozy small-town environment. This successful musical adaptation for the Broadway stage is faithful to Adrienne Shelly’s story of Jenna (Jisel Soleil Ayon), who is both a waitress and the “pie genius” at Joe’s Pie Diner, working alongside the worldy-wise Becky (Kennedy Salters), and the naive late bloomer Dawn (Gabriella Marzetta).
She is also unhappily married to the mean and low-down Earl (Shawn W. Smith), who eagerly takes her cash earnings and complains that she is inattentive, which explains how Jenna has become pregnant only after Earl encouraged her to get drunk one night. Earl is so insecure he worries Jenna will love the baby more than him.
Most of the action takes place in the diner or Jenna and Earl’s house, and one of the important things about this show is that the characters are lower to middle income middle Americans. The most notable exception is Joe (Michael R. Douglass), the irrascible elderly gentleman who owns several small businesses in town including Joe’s Pie Diner and for whom only Jenna has the patience to serve on his daily visits.
Unexpectedly, Jenna begins an affair with the town’s new OBGYN, Dr. Pomatter (David Socolar), and Waitress soon becomes filled with romance and lust for all of its characters.
Sara Bareilles’ relatively simple, plaintive score only occasionally reaches for the brassy temper of most Broadway scores, which means the songs are unusually intimate and insightful, deeply felt balladsin the tradition of good folk music expressing the longing and desire of people trapped by circumstances. Dreams of winning $20,000 in a pie baking contest or just finding a little passion when and where you least expect it.
Jisle Soleil Ayon is outstanding as Jenn, with a resonant and powerful soprano voice that was not unlike Sara Bareilles herself, and a seductive blend of warmth and wry irony. And not for nothing, but Ayon is BIPOC, as is Kennedy Salters as Becky, and the color-blind casting never calls attention to itself.
Salters is uproarious, if perhaps a little too broad for the overall tone of the piece, but that slapstick is also in Socolar’s performance and others; a quality not found in the original. At times it also embraces a crass sense of humor that pushes it even further away from the subtler whimsy of Adrienne Shelly’s movie.
Gabriella Marzetta as Dawn threatens to steal the whole show. In particular, her whilrwind romance with Brian Lundy’s lovesick uber-nerd Ogie is the most significant departure from the motion picture, a narrative expansion that allows the broadly comedic crowd-pleasing elements that musical theatre seems to demand. Both actors complement each other beautifully and lift the gentle heart of Waitress into show-stopping musical numbers just “big” enough to ensure the entertainment value for audiences without overwhelming the softer aspects of the narrative.
There is fluid staging with transitions that sweep by and unflashy choreography that frames and echoes the main characters’ emotional conflict as well as their triumphs.The signature moments where Jenna imagines a new pie that reflects the emotional conflict of moment, “I can’t have no affair because it’s wrong and I don’t want Earl to kill me pie” are a wonder of lean and economical movement, and if you need a little flash, the way dancers carry pies during their steps is very impressive.
And it is worthwhile remembering that Waitress is 100% the work of women creatives, beginning with Adrienne Shelly’s original screenplay, Jessie Nelson adaptation, Sara Barielles’ music and lyrics, direction by Tony-winner Diane Paulus, and choreography by Lorin Latarro. Even the recreation of the direction and choreography for this tour were handled by Susanna Wolk and Abbey O’ Brien, respectively.
The band is tight and placed onstage, although their presence there is only exploited in limited terms, with a few instances where an individual musician joins the scene to begin a song with the singer.
All of which means that Waitress exemplifies the empowerment that springs from its three fictional women. The lack of awards may be because of how determinedly it refuses to shoot the moon on glitz and glamour and maintain the integrity of the spirit of Shelly’s original film. At one point Jenna sums up the core aesthetic of the story: “Simple, plain, and not much to ask for…”
November 9-14, 2021
Tuesday through Thursday evenings at 7:30 pm, Friday & Saturday evenings at 8 pm, Saturday
matinee at 2 pm, Sunday matinee at 1 pm, and Sunday evening at 6:30 pm. Tickets are available
online at KentuckyCenter.org. Groups of 10 or more can book now by calling 513-369-4363.
Broadway in Louisville
Kentucky Center for the Performing Art
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.