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Waitress at the Hippodrome


Usually, at the conclusion of a theater review, a critic will supply after-matter alerting potential audience members to the particulars they need to know if they're contemplating attending the show: addresses, ticket prices, the presence of adult matter, etc. In the case of the touring production of Waitress, briefly ensconced at the Hippodrome this weekend, it's pointless for a reviewer to insert after-matter because the run is only two nights long, and it's unlikely that anything written here will be useful to the reader planning an actual theater evening, which is a pity, because this Waitress was an awful lot of fun.

Building on Adrienne Shelly's sometimes grimly hilarious and frequently heartwarming 2007 movie of the same name, and realized for the musical stage by Broadway's first all-female creative team in 2016, Waitress has been almost continuously on Broadway, apart from a COVID break which ended when the show was the first musical to reopen there. With great songs by Sara Bareilles, a strong script by Jessie Nelson, vivid characters, some surprising dance numbers, lots of sexy behavior, and a strong feminist message, there's little not to like.

The touring company, currently led by Jisel Soleil Ayon as Jenna, the titular Waitress, along with Kennedy Salters and Gabriella Marzetta as her sidekicks Becky and Dawn, is capable and energetic - maybe a touch too much so, as the singing was often allowed to veer into belting that didn't help with the intelligibility of lyrics in the less-than-perfect acoustic space of the Hippodrome Theatre.

This show wasn't quite a replica of the original production. Not only were some line readings definitely different, but there's been some other tinkering, including the drastic alteration of a heartwarming flash-forward at the end. In the original, Jenna's daughter Lulu was presented as a cute and engaged little girl (portrayed the 2016 night I saw the show by McKenna Keane, then five years old), but in this version far less time has passed, and Lulu is only a doll filling in for a mere babe in arms. Not an improvement. The projection of Jenna's happiness further into the future was both more credible (given the changes that are supposed to have occurred by that point) and more satisfying (few things are more heartwarming than a small child returning communal love).

There are also some old problems in the show that still remain. It gives little away to say that a main driver of the plot is that Jenna is trapped in marriage to an abusively possessive husband, Earl (Shawn W. Smith), and that a main subplot is the romance between Dawn and a sort of nerd prince named Ogie (Brian Lundy), whose pursuit of Dawn creepily echoes Earl's possessiveness. When Ogie sings to Dawn that "You're never ever getting rid of me," the fact that his intentions are pure doesn't entirely mask the disregard and disrespect for Dawn's expressed wishes implicit in his words and actions, and such disregard is also the heart of Earl's abuse of Jenna. There's supposed to be a contrast between the unhealthy Jenna/Earl relationship and the healthier Dawn/Ogie one, but the contrast isn't all that sharp.

Fortunately, this musical has strength enough to shoulder some defects. At its core, it is a celebration of female and by extension communal creativity, as expressed in pie-making and romancing and intergenerational transfers of skills in both arenas. Everything else remains secondary. The celebration is well-earned and well-enacted, and so it was a happy audience that filed out with me to the garage at the end of the evening.

Mentioning the garage reminds me that (in lieu of the omitted after-matter) I should be talking a bit of news-you-can-use for Baltimore theatergoers about the reopening of the Hippodrome, after it has lain dark for 18 months. As joyful as it made this reviewer to hear the entirely appropriate song "Opening Up" almost at the outset, we cannot go all the way with Dawn's comment within the song, and laud "every day [being] exactly the same." This isn't all exactly the same as it was before COVID. Exiting the garage to enter the theater, one was immediately confronted by what was different, including the ubiquitous masks on the crowd, and the long, snaking lines to clear COVID security, followed by ticket check and bag check. If you're planning to buy a drink at the bar (which they will let you unmask to drink but not take into the auditorium), be aware of these delays, and get there at least ten minutes earlier than you would ordinarily have done. Also, make allowances for the rustiness of the ushering staff, who seemed in our case not to know what door to send us to. With luck, circumstances will improve every aspect of the experience, but for now getting inside may be a bit bumpy. But do go. We all need to get the show back on the road.

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From This Author Jack L. B. Gohn