‘Waitress’ Preview | Interview with Stephanie Torns

Broadway musical favorite ‘Waitress’ will return to Cleveland with performances beginning on Thursday, May 26 and continuing through June 26.

The show will be hosted in Playhouse Square’s more intimate Hannah Theatre in favor of the traditional larger capacity houses at the complex.

For those unfamiliar with ‘Waitress,’ the first thing one should know is that the music for the show was composed by Grammy Award® winner Sara Bareilles. It is the first Broadway musical to open having women in the four top creative spots: composer (Bareilles), book writer Jessie Nelson, director Diane Paulus, and choreographer Lorin Latarro. It’s a funny, (at times) quirky, feel-good story about the challenges of life and following dreams.

The lead in the current touring production, Stephanie Torns (‘Jenna Hunterson’) phoned CleveRock for a quick chat about the upcoming Cleveland run, her journey of being with the show since its initial performances, and the uniqueness of performing in smaller venues.

Torns began performing with ‘Waitress’ beginning with its Out of Town and Broadway preview performances as a member of the ensemble. She’s a ‘Waitress’ “OG” — as the kids say these days. Fast forward to the present day, she’s the queen bee; the lead actress in the role of Jenna. Who better to give a brief paragraph summary of the show?

“It’s the story of Jenna Hunterson. She’s been dealt some tough cards in her life and so it’s about how to navigate life with what life gives us. For her, it’s making pies. She bakes these pies, which are basically her feelings and what she’s going through in life. Our show touches on domestic violence, and also friendship, and hopes and dreams,” Torns simplifies. “I think as people, we all strive for happiness and that’s what this show is about. Finding happiness and chasing the dreams that we deserve.”

Full disclosure, this interviewer’s bread and butter is reviewing rock concerts; not writing theater previews. But to draw a lazy parallel, many of the best shows I’ve seen were of higher profile acts playing scaled-down, intimate venues. ‘Waitress’ at Hannah Theatre is, to some extent, that type of experience. The 550-seat room is tiny in comparison to the several thousand-seat theaters that typically host a show of this magnitude.

“It brings the audience in. It brings in our diner and feels like we are all in it together, which is really special,” Torns said. “When we play Broadway houses, especially on the road, some of these houses are 3,000 seats. You get to experience the show, but not on such an intimate level. For a house this size, there’s not a bad seat. It feels like everyone is on the same ride together. As the actors, we can feel the energy and feel the more intimate sense of us all being in it together for the show’s duration.”

It’s the same great music; the same talented performers; the same story. It’s just wrapped up in a fun-sized box. A smaller room means a smaller stage, which inevitably calls for some changes.

“In the capacity of the diner and even the doctor’s office [stage sets], that is not automated. It’s not run by a button. It’s run by our wonderful cast and our crew and that’s the balance. Otherwise, we keep the production that everyone knows and loves,” Torns clarifies.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel Shaffer

‘Waitress’ celebrates women on all fronts. From the aforementioned women-led creative team to the female lead actress, to story themes laced with feminism, this show embraces “girl power.”

“We’re like the Spice Girls,” Torns quipped. “It’s really special. Our show is so female-heavy in its empowerment of three waitresses that are all females. To have a team that represents that and that guides us is something that was very, very special.”

Th COVID hiatus was especially difficult for the entertainment industry; specifically, theater. It was the first to shut down and one of the last to reopen. Playhouse Square reopened with limited seating sold by groups only, with masks and vaccinations required. New York City, home to Broadway and a COVID hotbed, struggled to find its footing as well. In a bit of a surprise, ‘Waitress’ was one of the shows that returned to NYC once Broadway got the green light to resume performances. And guess who got the call to continue her journey with the show?

“When they announced that Broadway would be returning, I never thought that I would be a part of that. I was very shocked and very humbled when I got the call that Waitress was planning on making a limited return to Broadway, I was able to do that and welcome Broadway back,” Torns said. (This was a phone conversation, but I could ‘hear’ her smile). “We were the first musical to open at that time. It was emotional. It was very emotional. It was full of people who love each other who were shocked to be there and grateful to be there.”

The journey from ensemble to lead in the play was a long and exciting journey for Torns. ‘Jenna’ is a dream role for the actress, and it’s been a long time coming!

“It’s very exciting. For me, it’s been seven years since the Out of Town. I never left. I’m really an ‘OG,’ as you said. It’s been really awesome,” Torns said. (Again, probably smiling on the other end of the line.) “The biggest thing for me in leading this company is that I had someone, before we started rehearsals, they asked what I was most excited about. I said, ‘To lead the company with grace and as much love as I can. It starts at the top. The top is me. I have to make sure that everyone feels valued, seen, and respected. It’s not just about me. I mean, the show is Waitress, yes, it’s about Jenna’s journey. I think it’s important to lead but also to remember that it takes a village.

The ‘Waitress’ team took COVID a little harder than others. Sure, the shutdown affected them as much as anyone else, but one of their actors, Nick Cordero (the original Earl Hunterson and late spouse of Canton, OH’s GlenOak High School alum, Amanda Kloots), passed away after a battle with COVID in 2020. Broadway casts, in most cases (seemingly in the case of ‘Waitress’), are a tight-knit family. Losing a family member is never easy. Much like the rest of the world who lost a loved one in 2020, gathering to properly mourn the loss of Cordero was not feasible.

“When the cast got back together, it was a moment for us all to just take that in together. When it happened, we couldn’t gather and were all in different parts of the country,” Torns recalls. “So, to gather and remember such a wonderful human being, we now have elements of our show that represent Nick Cordero that weren’t in there originally.”

Last question for Torns. What is about ‘Waitress’ that resonates so well with its audience?

“I think it’s people watching people being people. In a lot of shows, we don’t get that. It’s a lot of imaginary worlds and circumstances that are not necessarily a true story,” she said. “It’s somebody’s true story. I think people can come to watch our show and experience that. You can laugh. You can cry. You can feel all the things.”

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