Broadway has finally and gloriously returned to the historic Hippodrome with the charming and crowd-pleasing tour of the Tony and Drama Desk-nominated 2016 musical, the comedy-drama “Waitress.” Sadly, it is a too short a visit with only two days of performances. It is based on the 2007 film by the late Adrienne Shelly, (inspiration from the 1972 movie “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and subsequent TV series, “Alice,” is clearly evident). The musical is noted for the fact that it is the first Broadway show to have four of the top creative positions helmed by women—lyrics and music by Grammy-winner, Sara Bareilles (who also starred in the show on Broadway periodically and reopened the show this season with a limited engagement), book by Jessie Nelson, choreography by Lorin Latarron, with direction by Tony Award-winner Diane Paulus. For the tour, the choreography is re-created by Abbey O’Brien and the direction is re-created by Susanna Wolk.
The first act spins along with high energy while the second acts slows the pace down with more serious moments. This is a timely show for a post-pandemic return to theater because of its message of hope and strength. Despite some darker moments, it is also great fun.
…incredible talent and a great score. It is a perfect show for the Hippodrome to bring Broadway back to Baltimore.
Trapped in a small town in the south, Jenna (the luminous Jisel Soleil Ayon with a knock-out voice) is a talented baker/waitress at Joe’s Pies and married to an abusive husband, Earl (Shawn W. Smith, in a thankless but chillingly realistic performance). She finds escape in creating pies for the diner, with a special one every day with (often humorous) a name that reflects what is going on in her life. Her memories and dreams are visualized by the marvelous ensemble which has elements of Banraku, traditional Japanese puppet theater. They can always be seen and they sometimes physically manipulate the other characters in acting out Jenna’s daydreams.
Jenna finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and though she doesn’t want her baby, she decides to keep it. When she goes for her physical exam, her recently-retired female doctor has been replaced by a young and gawky Dr. Pomatter (a wonderful David Socolar), newly-arrived from Connecticut. He came to this town because his wife, a fellow doctor, is doing her residency at the local hospital. Despite the fact that they are both married, they fall for each other and comically engage in a passionate affair that they know is wrong (“Bad Idea”), but gives them the love and attention they crave. After Jenna’s husband is fired from his job, her only hope of escape is saving the money to enter a pie contest and win the $20,000 prize money. Unfortunately, Earl find the money she held back from him hidden in the couch. To avoid his violence, she tells him she saved it to buy the baby a crib—and her dreams are dashed.
Despite the fact that you’ve seen these characters before, the entire cast is spectacular—the rough-around-the-edges-but-fuzzy-at-the-core cook and manager, Cal (Jake Mills with great comic timing); the brassy, quick-witted co-worker and friend, Becky (Kennedy Salters, with a voice that raises the roof); the nerdy, plain co-worker, Dawn, looking for love and finds it with Ogie, a fellow Revolutionary War enactor prone to spouting spontaneous and enthusiastic poetry (both scene stealers and wonderfully over-the-top, Gabriella Marzetta and Brian Lundy); and the crusty, older gentleman (a marvelous Michale R. Douglas) who owns many businesses in town, including his namesake, Joe’s Pies. He seems to be able to read everything that is going on with Jenna. Though you can see it coming a mile away, his soft spot for Jenna ultimately turns her fortunes around.
There is an issue to be taken with Earl’s abuse which is somewhat glossed over. When Jenna finally connects with her baby in the hospital and tells Earl to take a hike, it is too easy. In reality, it is incredibly difficult for most women to escape abusive relationships. But everyone loves a happy ending and it is never more needed than right now.
The set design by Scott Pask, which utilizes realistic scenic projections behind the moveable sets pieces, and lighting by Ken Billington, create that small town feel and different times of the day. The costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlarb are spot-on.
The small band on stage has to be acknowledged. It is an incredibly talented group, with music direction by Alyssa Kay Thompson and tour music supervision by Ryan Cantwell. During a few numbers, some of the musicians are highlighted (such as the fabulous bassist in “It Only Takes a Taste” with Jenna and the doctor) and deliberately become part of the scene in the background.
Though you have seen this story and characters before, this production is blessed with incredible talent and a great score. It is a perfect show for the Hippodrome to bring Broadway back to Baltimore. We hope “Waitress” will return for a longer run.
Running time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
Advisory: Mild adult language and brief (but humorous) simulation of sexual activity.
“Waitress” runs through November 7, 2021 at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201. For more information and tickets, click here. For information on health protocols, click here. For more information on the Hippodrome’s upcoming season, click here.