By Olivia Popp
The 2016 Broadway musical “Waitress” took the theater scene by storm and was nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Musical. With an original score by Sara Bareilles, “Waitress” is one of many new musicals to feature the crossover talent of singers and songwriters. Based on a 2007 film of the same name, “Waitress” tells the story of Jenna Hunterson, a talented baker and waitress who has an affair with her gynecologist in an attempt to escape her abusive husband after she discovers she is pregnant.
The newest tour of “Waitress” brings the now-iconic musical to the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. It’s a celebration of both new and old, combining pristinely crafted sliding sets (set design by Scott Pask) and pop-inspired show tunes to the stage. The bright colors of neon signs, realistic cafe and home sets and sky backdrop bring a certain grounded quality to the musical considering the serious material of the musical. However, despite the realistic quality of the set, it never distracts from the story at hand – rather, it enhances it. Audience members are thrown into the “Waitress” world, the sets filled with certain amount of depth (there’s even barely-visible booths at the back of the stage where ensemble members sit in the cafe!).
“Waitress” ultimately succeeds (and monumentally, may I add) in its comedy. Through the soundtrack, one can get a sense of the musical and its story, and even more so if you read a summary. However, it’s another thing to really see the musical in its entirety – and especially this iteration. I didn’t expect the musical to be this, well, funny. Without a doubt, the standout character and performance came from Jeremy Morse, who plays Ogie – Dawn’s (Jessie Shelton) peculiar, quirky and passionate love interest. With a mash of perfectly timed physical comedy and beautifully executed verbal humor, it’s barely seconds in before the audience bursts out into laughter over his character, and every moment onstage just adds to the joy he brings. Even though he’s only onstage for a few scenes, Morse’s performance is unforgettable.
Jenna (Christine Dwyer), Dawn and Becky (Anastacia McCleskey) also make a formidable trio of waitresses at the diner, singing in perfect harmony. It’s the slow songs that really allow Dwyer to shine (“What’s Inside,” “She Used to be Mine”), while Shelton belts out “When He Sees Me” in Dawn’s unforgettable shrill voice, originated by “Orange is the New Black” star Kimiko Glenn.
Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart) also gets his fair share of comedic moments, sharing them mostly with Jenna in a montage sequence of hilarious times together in Pomatter’s examination room. Director Diane Paulus does not hold back when it comes to lewd humor, culminating in a heart-wrenchingly shocking few seconds of the three waitresses with their respective love interests engaging in passionate lovemaking in three separate locations. It took the audience (and me) several moments to recover. Otherwise, “Waitress” is perfectly poignant and child-friendly, and the comedy only adds a flavorful taste (pun intended) to the colorful musical, pushing the buttons of Broadway audiences.
“Waitress” is not a particularly dance-heavy musical, but the choreography (by Lorin Latarro) nevertheless plays a huge part. Each moment that Jenna breaks away to ponder her own future with abusive husband Earl (Matt DeAngelis, ironically Dwyer’s real-life fiancé), the ensemble dips in like shadows to give or take away props, costume pieces and more. It’s practically a dance that the ensemble members do throughout, requiring a certain amount of prowess and agility aligned with the lead actors.
The orchestra itself even interacts with the world of the musical – a bass player on a corner, a guitar in the coffee shop. It’s small touches like these that make “Waitress” stand out beyond the formulaic musical. While the show has its own songs that may ultimately go down in musical history and the Western canon, the musical thrives off of its uniqueness. “Waitress” is a San Francisco must-see for any musical lovers, and you’re guaranteed to enjoy it even if you’ve never listened to a lick of the soundtrack.
“Waitress” plays at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco through Nov. 11.
Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.