By Owen Bryant
Book by Jessie Nelson
Music & Lyrics by Sara Bareilles
Life is never a piece of cake. And it certainly isn’t easy as pie either. That’s what the Pioneer Center’s latest theatrical production Waitress teaches in song, dance, laughs and heartache. Based on the 2007 film written by Adrienne Shelly and starring Keri Russell, Waitress is a faithful musical adaptation of a story about a diner waitress with more on her plate than she can handle. How she navigates the ups and downs of her life unfolds brilliantly through the writing of Jessie Nelson and seasoned songstress Sara Bareilles.
Jenna (Jisel Soleil Ayon) is an overworked, underappreciated waitress at Joe’s Diner in what might as well be Nowhereland, U.S.A. Her only friends are her work crew, fellow waitresses Becky (Dominique Kent) and Dawn (Gabriella Marzetta), line cook Cal (Jake Mills), and the crotchety but sympathetic owner Joe (Michael R. Douglass).
Jenna spends her days working the tables, but her true passion lies in baking pies, which her mother taught her from a young age. Jenna unexpectedly discovers motherhood is upon her, and in a less-than-happy marriage, she finds herself caught in quite a jam. Enter her new gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (David Socolar) who finds himself enchanted by more than just Jenna’s pies.
What ensues is a story about love, friendship, hardship and the dynamics that each of those things affect on people’s lives.
While not officially part of the “Broadway Comes to Reno” series, Waitress has almost every quality of a show of such caliber. The set design was creative and vivid, but slightly more renegade than what you would expect from a Broadway show. Often the ensemble cast members could be seen effortlessly moving set pieces as the scenes transitioned, but they blended into the scene as they needed to once the scene began.
The backdrop of a dusty country road with a few lonely telephone poles looked photographic; the wispy sky brightened and darkened with the lights depending on what time of day the scene was set. The pie-making scenes used real flour, butter and dough, and it made me wonder just how much they spend on these ingredients for each production to maintain the realism.
The acting was spectacular. Ayon absolutely hit the mark as Jenna, conflicted between her loyalty to her abusive, deadbeat husband Earl (Shawn W. Smith) and the potential for a new life and love with her doctor.
Kent and Marzetta were comedic scene stealers as Jenna’s endearing sidekicks who are also exploring their own love lives. Douglass acted as the moral compass of the story, delivering a character that is at first tough to swallow, but brings a tear to the eye by the end of the show.
The comedy and drama are a perfect mix, creating a story as sweet and as surprising as one of Jenna’s famous pies.
Sara Bareilles may be mostly known for her work in contemporary pop music, but her experience in musical theater shouldn’t be underestimated. She has plenty: playing Jenna on the West End and Broadway, Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert and Ariel in the Hollywood Bowl’s The Little Mermaid. Her musical theater chops lend themselves well to this story.
Reminiscent of Little Shop of Horrors’ casual doo-wop at times, the music wasn’t too complicated but hit all the right notes, so to speak, to keep the spirit alive. Standout numbers include “The Negative,” “Bad Idea,” “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” and “Take It From an Old Man.” Every character gets their chance to shine with a song, giving each scene a personal, intimate feel.
There were one or two slightly pitchy moments from some of the seemingly lesser-seasoned actors. There was also a baby at the end that was garishly fake, but still probably better than trying to put a real infant on stage. These are things I expect would have been better in an actual Broadway production, but they hardly detracted from the entire experience.
Overall, Waitress was a pleasing feast for the heart and soul. Instantly relatable to those who have experienced these very real and common hardships, but enough of a romantic tryst away from reality to keep it from getting too serious. Overall, Waitress is a delightful slice of pie for young and old alike.