Waitress opened on Broadway in the same 2015/16 season as Hamilton – so, hardly surprisingly, lost out in the Tony Awards race, including for best musical and best original score. Yet, nearly three years on from its premiere there, it is still running – a block away from Hamilton (and the only shows from that season still be doing so).
It has obviously struck a chord with theatregoers – and now it has come to London (with an international roll-out still to follow in Australia and Japan). It is in an altogether lower-key, folk-rock register to Hamilton’s blast of hip-hop energy, and an absolutely lovely contrast to it. There is, or at least should be, room for both.
Again, while Hamilton takes bold steps while re-telling a giant chapter in the birth of the American nation and the constitutional papers that are its bedrock, Waitress is more domestically-scaled – and all the more heartfelt and personal for it.
Here is an intimate everyday story of the power of workplace friendships and the joys of pie-baking – but not, as you might fear, full of sugar but also containing quite a lot of spice. There are real notes of anguish and entrapment felt as we follow the experiences of a diner waitress called Jenna, who can bake multiple varieties of pies – but also finds herself unexpectedly with a bun in the oven.
So far, so familiar; especially if you’ve seen the 2007 film of the same name, originally written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly. But what the all-female writing and lead creative team have done here is to add texture and tension through a series of gorgeous songs by folk-pop writer Sara Bareilles, making her musical theatre debut, that pulse with melody and feeling, and tender comedy notes expertly channelled by book writer Jessie Nelson.
Under the guiding eyes of director Diane Paulus and choreographer Lorin Latarro, this story about a woman’s life, told entirely from her point of view, is beautifully championed – and gets a sterling boost from American import Katharine McPhee, reprising the role of Jenna that she has also performed on Broadway, who has an effortlessly natural acting style and an alternately soaring and throbbing singing voice, not least in the show’s Act Two power ballad “She Used to Be Mine”.
She is ideally partnered by Marisha Wallace and Laura Baldwin as her two work colleagues, each of whom get their own songs to shine in; and while all the male roles are, unusually for a musical, supporting ones, there are characterful contributions from David Hunter as Jenna’s gynaecologist who takes more than a passing professional interest in her, Peter Hannah as her abusive husband and Shaun Prendergast as the fatherly owner of the diner.
This is a small show with a big heart; it may have been better served by a more intimate house than the Adelphi for its London debut, but I loved it.
Waitress tickets are available now.