I have to confess to craving a slice of humble-pie after watching Waitress, the latest big Broadway musical import, set in a Southern diner specialising in home-made pies.
The pitch to audiences here – “an uplifting celebration of love and laughter” – is enough to make a cynic reach for a barf-bag before entering the (warm-pie-scented) auditorium. The show, based on an admired but obscure 2007 film, written and directed by as well as co-starring Adrienne Shelly (murdered before its release), isn’t standard feelgood fare, though. It centres on the tough working lives and relationship angst of three waitresses, foremost the heroine Jenna, wedded to an abusive brute called Earl, by whom she is now unhappily pregnant.
Throw in carnal passion with her handsome (also married) gynaecologist as well as quirky amorousness elsewhere, and you’ve got a meatier than usual romcom that also smacks a tad of indigestible overload. It came away from the 2016 Tony Awards empty-handed and The New York Times talked of “slick surface professionalism rather than anything approaching real depth”. The cast album has been much streamed, but to the uninitiated it can sound rather icky. To be honest, I went in expecting the whole thing to get completely up my nostrils.
Yet after two hours of more-ish, tuneful entertainment (snappy folky-rocky-poppy music and lyrics from Sara Bareilles, book by Jessie Nelson) my carapace – crust, if you will – of scepticism had been breached, leaving warm appreciation oozing out. And if you’re averse to tongue-in-cheek, culinary-related metaphors, then do stand warned – from the opening, lullaby-like line “Sugar, butter, flour”, this is a show that takes joyous relish in whisking together the staple references of its workplace milieu with all the confused emotions that attend its principals’ appetite for love and companionship.
Diane Paulus’s production – featuring a mixed British and American cast superbly led by Katharine McPhee, who has already played Jenna in the US – combines supreme polish with a wonderfully up-tempo, rushed-off-its-feet inventiveness. Joe’s Diner seems to materialise by magic, with clientele and discreet live band, and the way a tray gets flung at the kitchen and caught by Stephen Leask’s greasy boss Cal signals the split-second timing that awaits.
We’re plunged into the personal crisis of Jenna’s pregnancy test – with Marisha Wallace’s no-nonsense Becky and Laura Baldwin’s dorkish Dawn congregating in the ladies to offer support to a character who, thanks to McPhee’s subtly pained and stoical, perfectly expressive performance, we instantly root for.
The evening builds towards the resolution of that personal crisis – and achieves some hard-won hope for the future. It gets there by spinning adroitly between seriousness and skittishness, avoiding treacly sentimentality and glibness. The comedy songs, capped by a frantic show-stopper from 30 Rock star Jack McBrayer as Dawn’s goofball camp and creepily persistent suitor Ogie, are very funny indeed. But the ballads are meltingly lovely: “She Used to be Mine” sings McPhee, mourning the person she thought she’d be – now reduced to squirrelling cash into the furniture and hoping her gift for pie-making might, courtesy of a competition, set her financially free. I heard sniffing in the stalls.
Among the men, David Hunter redeems his stereotypically unlovely sex as the dishy, neurotic, gauche medic whom Jenna hungrily seizes upon (giving rise to a deliciously raunchy – and hardly family-friendly – number). Wallace memorably raises the roof in Becky’s belter I Didn’t Plan It, giving voice to a refusal to take orders from anyone. What with Emilia, the play about proto-feminist Emilia Bassano, opening next door at the Vaudeville, the Strand could be renamed Female Empowerment Avenue. Have we reached, well, a tipping point?