'Waitress' Review: A Welcome Return to the Diner With the Women Who Started it All
As I was handed my playbill walking into the Ethel Barrymore Theater, it was hard not to notice the large sticker plastered on the top right corner reading “The Diner is Re-Open September 2, 2021”. Waitress is proud to be one of two major musicals premiering on September 2nd and to usher in a long-awaited return to Broadway. Rumors had been flying around for months that Waitress was eying a return to Broadway in time for its re-opening, but concrete details and confirmations were hard to come by. Then suddenly, almost like magic it was announced and put on sale with a special surprise - Sara Bareilles was set to star for a limited set of dates. With this I immediately rushed to grab a ticket to opening night because I was starved for some good Broadway comfort food- and Waitress still serves that up unlike anything else running.
Waitress is actually an adaptation of a little-known Indie film of the same name, written by Adrienne Shelly and released in 2007 to positive reviews. Sara Bareilles saw potential in the material and along with filmmaker Jessie Nelson decided to form a musical out of it. Although both were new to the theatre world at the time of its inception, Waitress premiered and became a smash hit on Broadway. Critics were mixed initially but heaped praise on Sara’s songs and how simple and heartfelt this woman’s story was. Jessie Mueller initially starred and won the musicals only Tony Award; in a year dominated by Hamilton. After her tenure Waitress began to see declining ticket sales but used stunt casting to its advantage by hiring many famous singers and celebrities to play key roles including the likes of Jordin Sparks, Katherine Mcphee and eventually even Sara herself, who is in the role now through the end of October.
The Story here is simple but effective and features Jenna- a server at Joe’s Diner in Indiana with a heart of gold and her head in the clouds. Jenna is married to Earl, an abusive drunk and we learn very early on that she is pregnant with his baby. She is unhappy but plans to keep the child- much to the chagrin of her fellow servers Becky and Dawn. Her true gift is Pie-Making, and often during the show time will stop and she will create a recipe that goes along with the plot of the story. Will her pies allow her to win a contest and start her new life- or will her doubts and past keep her stuck in the kitchen? You may think you know the answer, but the journey is certainly worth taking.
Casting for this revival focused on getting fan favorite performers of these characters who knew the material well and could jump right back in with no issues. Sara Barreiles is sublime in the main role, singing these songs like only she could. Her passion for her material is clear and sells her somewhat shaky acting and drifting accent. Caitlin Houlahan as Dawn and Charity Dawson as Becky deliver solid performances and really turn these two-dimensional friends into loveable and fully realized characters. Each side character has a moment to shine, and their respective musical numbers each drew thunderous applause. The men are no slouches either, with Drew Gehling adorably playing the handsome yet awkward Dr. Pomatter and Joe Tippet chewing up the stage as Earl. However, it is Christopher Fitzgerald who almost steals the show as Ogie- Dawn’s potential love interest and a poet/accountant/war-reenactor. This role is hammy, stupid and ridiculous and you can tell Fitzgerald loves every second of it. Each performer really sold their part, and no character is entirely right or wrong in their sayings and actions. They’re just normal people like you and I, struggling to get bye and maybe find love and a little bit of Joy along the way.
If I had any negatives, I would say the writing of the show can be a little flat, this is a small-scale story and sometimes relies a bit too hard on stereotypes and broad strokes. Also the conclusion is a bit too rushed and tidy- like they didn’t know where to stop and where to go. I also would have appreciated a more diverse and inclusive cast- It still feels very much like the “old Broadway” I thought we would have left in the past after this 14-month hiatus. The actual experience of the night also seemed a bit rushed; I can forgive first night nerves-especially when Chuck Schumer walks in the doors- but not having a bar or the famous pies available for sale along with merch was a bit annoying. Especially when the show dedicated a pie to the late Broadway Actor Nick Cordero- a original member of this cast who sadly was one of the first celebrities to pass from Covid last year.
Overall Waitress is just the sugary sweet confection Broadway needed, for audiences and tradition alike. If you have the opportunity to see it with Sara go for it- you will not be disappointed. Don’t wait too long because this will be a limited run, and as of this review the diner is set to close in January. If you were a fan before or want to see what the hype is about then dive right in, just hope you’ve got a sweet tooth.
*Waitress is playing at the Barrymore Theatre. Tickets range from $79 to $499. Content appropriate for ages 12+ for Language and Sexual Scenarios. Run Through January 20th, 2021*
Star Rating **** out of *****