Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Jenna is a young woman in a small town who works as a waitress at the local diner. She's also a baker who creates delicious pies with combinations of ingredients that don't always seem to go together. In an unhappy marriage with a husband who is demanding, controlling, and even slightly abusive, when Jenna learns she is pregnant, she finds support and guidance from the two women she works with and her kind, but married, OB-GYN.
The story and plot may be simple, but the score by singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles, who is known for her songs that feature lyrics that touch upon strength and independence, uses a variety of musical styles with lyrics that work extremely well to give a beautiful voice, and strength, to Jenna and her fellow female co-workers. Jessie Nelson's book, based on the late Adrienne Shelly's screenplay, does a great job in combining the charm and sense of female empowerment in Shelly's movie script with some fun touches that provide pops of comedy. It also fleshes out almost every character so they are all three-dimensional and people we can identify with. At the center of the show is the idea that we should all strive for happiness, even if that means we end up hurting people around us, and the combination of Nelson's book and Bareilles' score beautifully depicts that driving theme.
While there are a few times when the broad characters and the comedy in the show begin to border on caricature, tour director Susanna Wolk, recreating Diane Paulus' original direction, keeps that from happening. Wolk also makes sure that the range of emotions, moods, and variations in the characters ring true. Everyone in the (non-Equity) touring cast does good work creating believable and unique individuals. The ensemble is woven into the show quite effectively, with Lorin Latarro's fast paced, fun, and imaginative choreography, recreated for the tour by Abbey O'Brien. The fluid movement is well staged on Scott Pask's constantly changing set design, which appears to be identical or only slightly downsized from the first national tour, with seamless transitions that quickly change the locations in the show from Joe's Diner, where Jenna works and which is the centerpiece of the show, to Jenna's home, her doctor's office, and a hospital room. Suttirat Anne Larlarb's costumes are bright and character appropriate and the lighting design by Ken Billington uses a wash of warm colors to accurately depict the changing times of day and shifts in mood and tone in the show.
As Jenna, Jisel Soleil Ayon does an excellent job depicting the wide range of emotions the character feels. She also instills Jenna with an abundance of strength, warmth, kindness and charm but doesn't shy away from letting us see the weak and conflicted moments she has. Ayon's singing voice is gorgeous, with a powerful belt that drives home Jenna's big number, "She Used to be Mine," while also providing depth and insight into Jenna's more introspective and quieter songs. It's an all-around wonderful portrayal of this interesting and identifiable woman.
Gabriella Marzetta and Dominique Kent are great as Jenna's co-workers and close friends, Dawn and Becky, respectively. Marzetta is hilarious as the kooky and slightly unsure of herself young woman and Kent is excellent as the quick-witted, no-nonsense Becky. They both also have bright and clear singing voices. David Socolar is very good as Dr. Pomatter, the man who comes into Jenna's life and forces her to make some hard decisions. Socolar has good physical comic timing which works well for the scenes in which his nerdy character displays some fun and quirky moves, and his singing voice is sweet and romantic.
As Cal, the cook at the diner, Jake Mills is short tempered but lovable, and Michael R. Douglass embodies charm and wisdom as the elderly and slightly cranky man who owns the restaurant. Shawn W. Smith is good as Jenna's harsh and controlling husband Earl, and Brian Lundy is a hoot as the quirky Ogie who falls for Dawn. In the small role of the nurse who works for Dr. Pomatter, Dayna Maria Quincy is appropriately sweet and sassy.
Waitress has a warm and realistic book and an upbeat and witty score. Combining these with inspired direction and choreography, and a talented cast, makes for a most enjoyable, charming, and winning production, just as the mixture of several ingredients makes Jenna's pies so delicious.
Waitress runs through January 30, 2022, at the Orpheum Theatre, 203 W Adams Street, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information on this show and upcoming Broadway at the Orpheum shows, visit www.americantheatreguild.com/phoenix/. For more information on the tour, visit https://waitresstour.com/.
Book by Jessie Nelson
Cast: (in order of appearance)