By Zach Freeman
“I haven’t had a piece of pie in years,” says Dr. Pomatter (David Socolar) to his new patient, unhappily expectant mother and pie chef extraordinaire Jenna (Jisel Soleil Ayon). “Really?” she replies, incredulously, placing a pie on his examining table. “Life’s hard enough.”
Isn’t it though? Leave it to slices of pie and moving, silly, heart-wrenching, goofy, lovely experiences like the national tour of “Waitress” (playing through May 15 at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas as part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center Broadway Series) to make things a little sweeter for a little while (for two hours and fifty minutes – with a 20 minute intermission – to be exact).
The show – based on the 2007 Keri Russell-starring movie of the same name – was a hit when it opened on Broadway in 2016, earning four Tony nominations, and it was a hit in Dallas Tuesday night when the audience quickly latched onto both the heartfelt emotional and the (sometimes slapstick) comedic aspects of the show from the start, ooohing at the sweet stuff, guffawing at the funny stuff and ohhhing at the verbal (and sometimes physical) altercations. “Waitress” is a heady mix of big topics (life, love, happiness, parenthood) playing out on a small scale (a tiny town and its residents in the local pie shop) and the cast – along with a live band on stage throughout – wrings every drop of engagement out of the witty dialogue (book by Jessie Nelson) and the poppy, popping songs (music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles).
Like the movie – which isn’t necessary to see to enjoy the play but does allow for a deeper appreciation of the adaptation – the story follows Jenna (Ayon), a small town waitress, as she navigates her disappointment in how her life has turned (and is still turning) out, kicking off with the discovery that she’s gotten pregnant by her loser of a husband (Shawn W. Smith) and diving into how with support from her friends and fellow waitresses Dawn (Gabriella Marzetta) and Becky (Dominique Kent) she learns to take back control of her life.
It’s a show about yearning, a sometimes deep but just as often silly musical romantic comedy that offers up lots of pie but never offers up easy solutions to its character’s entangled lives. And it never gets so heavy it collapses under its own self-seriousness. Tuesday night’s audience rode the waves between laughing at the lighthearted and downright loony bits – like the scene-stealing “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” between Dawn and her dopey male suitor Ogie (Brian Lundy) – and gasping at the rawness of powerfully delivered solos like Ayon’s show-stopping rendition of “She Used to Be Mine.”
Singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles has crafted a collection of songs that are equal parts catchy and enchanting, giving life to the various characters and diving into Jenna’s vivid imagination with a captivating surrealistic bent that’s brought to life with clever and effective set (Scott Pask) and lighting (Ken Billington) design. But it’s the pipes on the cast – especially the three leading ladies – that makes this almost three hour show fly by. All the conversations I overheard during intermission and after the show were about how impressive the show (and specifically the cast) was.
And it is a show that does a lot: it makes you unabashedly root for a complicated but endearing protagonist, reminds you how important your relationships are and encourages you to appreciate the sweet things in life, both big and small, without getting overly pretentious about it. At one point Jenna asks her boss at the diner, Cal (Jake Mills), if he’s happy and he replies, simply, “Happy enough.”
Tuesday night the audience was happy enough with the show that they were quick to jump to their feet for a standing ovation that lasted throughout the entire curtain call and crescendoed when Ayon took the stage for her bow. Streaming out of the theater and into the parking garage on a hot May night, I’d say most of the audience was more than happy enough with at least one aspect of their lives: how they spent their Tuesday night.
Zach Freeman is a freelance culture writer living in DFW.