It’s subtler than I had expected, this Broadway blockbuster that now has a home in the West End. Waitress, based on a motion picture of the same name, tells the story of Jenna Hunterson (Katharine McPhee), who is in an unhealthy relationship with Earl (Peter Hannah). Her waitressing is done in a pie shop, which explains why pies are on sale in the theatre foyer – in three flavours, apple crumble, banoffee and chocolate salted caramel), and are, at least at the time of writing, popular with audience members. I couldn’t resist the novelty of munching on a pie, partly because the smell of freshly made pie wafts through sections of the Adelphi Theatre.
My arteries may have been slightly hardened as a result of this indulgence, but this is more than outweighed by my heart being considerably warmed by a musical that spins a sincere yarn. The musical numbers, taken as a whole, are varied – the one that seems compulsory in musical theatre concerts, ‘She Used To Be Mine’, received sustained applause, quite justifiably: it was good to hear it in context. They are, more often than not, tunes that belong in a studio performance space rather than a large proscenium arch theatre. Some, however, suit the Adelphi well, like ‘Bad Idea’, the last number in the first half, and ‘I Didn’t Plan It’, sung by Jenna’s fellow waitress Becky (Marisha Wallace, whose powerhouse vocals, used to great effect in Dreamgirls previously, are somewhat underutilised here).
While ‘Never Ever Getting Rid of Me’ is impressive as a tune, what Ogie (Jack McBrayer) brings to the table is something incongruent with honourable behaviour. That may well be what Waitress’ creatives intended – a subplot that highlights that, to quote a certain political figure, ‘nothing has changed’. This is, after all, the post-Weinstein / Spacey / Cosby (etc) era. While there’s some good character acting from McBrayer, sympathy lies with Ogie’s target, yet another waitress, Dawn (Laura Baldwin), who just so happens to have a slightly eccentric demeanour, albeit one that pales in comparison to Ogie’s own quirks.
The plotlines are not exactly watertight, and a few of the characters fail to not mix business with pleasure. Dr Jim Pomatter (David Hunter) becomes something more than Jenna’s gynaecologist, which is morally dubious to say the least. For reasons made clear in the narrative (to me, anyway) Jenna cannot simply walk out on Earl straight away. There are touching moments when Joe (Shaun Prendergast), the pie shop’s proprietor, offers Jenna useful advice, particularly in the song ‘Take It From An Old Man’.
There are plenty of moments of humour, with the many and varied names that Jenna comes up with for the pie shop’s daily special being a case in point (all lovingly made with “sugar, butter, flour”). Then there’s Cal (Stephen Leask), the pie shop’s manager. “I’m leaving before I die from oestrogen asphyxiation,” he muses. “Lady, you are really pushing my buttons today!” he almost snaps at Becky, who comes straight back with, “Which one is mute?” Kelly Agbowu’s Nurse Norma gets an excellent punchline or two as well. On a separate note, there’s not a huge amount of dancing in this musical and what choreography does exist is not much to write home about, though it is too harsh to deem it half-baked (so to speak), because its restrained nature suits the story.
Much has been made of this show having an all-female creative team – Sara Bareilles (music and lyrics), Jessie Nelson (book), Lorin Latarro (choreography) and Diane Paulus (director). But as a fellow theatregoer who happens to be a woman pointed out to me, several of the production’s designers (set, lighting, sound, wig and make-up) are men, and the production doesn’t pass the ‘Bechdel Test’.
What else? Well, it’s also one of those musicals that whips things up very tidily and very hastily in its closing moments. Six musicians, including musical director Katharine Woolley, are sometimes visible on-stage. They are all brilliant. And in the end, there’s hope for anyone who seeks a better life than the one they’ve currently got in this comforting and charming production. A diner worth visiting.