Wednesday 29th April 2019 at the Adelphi Theatre, London.
Based on Adrienne Shelly’s film with Book by Jessie Nelson and much publicised music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, Waitress the musical comedy has some heavyweight backing. It’s a thoroughly modern affair bringing the harsher realities of life to the musical stage with pathos and a surprisingly rich prominence of comedy considering the central subject matter.
Jenna (Katharine McPhee) is our waitress. Stuck in a loveless and increasingly aggressive, controlling marriage, she finds solace in her baking of pies. She creates a wild variety of fillings and toppings in sync with her narrative arc which takes her from a fragile, softly spoken sweet soul to a slightly more autonomous and impassioned woman cutting the zip ties of her married life. With the help of an awakening infatuation with Dr Pomatter (David Hunter), Jenna finds herself again. McPhee and Hunter make a great pairing both as a romantic pairing but also as a comedy duo and their handling of Director Diane Paulus’ love scene montage in particular (with canny Lighting from Ken Billington) is fantastic.
The unpleasant domestic environment is presented perfectly – the show doesn’t labour the point but gives us just enough glimpses of the deeply possessive Earl (Peter Hannah) and his childish insecurity leading to alpha male aggression to secure sympathy for Jenna. What the production lacks however is any real investment in the freed Jenna – the glimpses of her somewhat happy ending are frustratingly fleeting which is a significant shortfall with this show.
This is a production which sells itself as a show with a proud feminist thread but to cut Jenna’s story short in this way compromises that self-certified status for me. The character needs more about her at closing – she’s often a quiet, understated presence in scenes and there’s a persistent sense of her voice being lacking even when engaged in the gentle patter of light and breezy dialogue. I desperately wanted to see something concrete to convince me of her emancipation and return to self and happiness before the curtain abruptly arrived…
Comic characters are plentiful which is the saving grace of a production which would otherwise rest on the shoulders of a serially silenced central character who doesn’t get much of a chance to show a stronger side. Jenna’s fellow waitresses Becky (Marisha Wallace) and Dawn (Laura Baldwin) are excellent with Wallace offering us much needed female brassiness alongside Baldwin’s manically insular lovable fool. Ogie the awkward and over-stepping suitor is the real jester of the piece though and Jack McBrayer is perfectly cast, getting the biggest laughs to be heard across the production. Regular pain the in backside Joe (Shaun Prendergast) and comically cantankerous Cal (Stephen Leask) complete the pack and with this lively ensemble with sharp comic timing, the production manages to hover just above the drama category.
Scott Pask’s set whisks us between diner, home and doctor’s chair with the familiar whirl of West End magic and in the same vein, Suttirat Ann Larlarb’s costume achieves the sorcery of quick changes and pregnancy very nicely.Choreographer Lorin Latarro is relieved of the demands of numerous big whole ensemble numbers and is instead challenged with the crafting of more abstract movement which frequently plants the ensemble as hands providing Jenna with ingredients and such. Such a shift from West End showstoppers to the gentle lull of a repeated refrain does set this musical apart, allowing for a refreshing, gentler approach to the musical comedy for much of the production.
Music and comedy are cornerstones and Sara Bareilles’ songs are great, with She Used to be Mine being a significant highlight as McPhee wraps her gorgeous vocals around the emotive lyrics with such sweet purity. I found myself questioning the decision to hand another key ballad over to an actor without a strong singing voice and it’s perhaps in those decisions that my tepid emotional response to the more emotive scenes lies.
Dawn’s When He Sees Me and Ogie’s Never Ever Getting Rid of Me are comic highlights played beautifully by Baldwin and McBrayer, although I’m sure eyebrows will have risen at some of the lyrics in this era of #MeToo and female empowerment. As a contemporary creation, I can see the reception of Ogie’s persistence in this show falling in one of two directions for most but thankfully I think McBrayer performs the number brilliantly and in the right tone (a sort of updated Take a Chance on Me perhaps).
Waitress certainly feels like a polished West End show with plenty of comic appeal and a central character designed to infiltrate our hearts. I certainly rooted for her but felt that the show fell short on its selling point. It’s absolutely worth seeing for entertainment value and on the merit of its excellent cast but this show didn’t quite live up to the hype for me – it’s a 3 story in a sharp 4 production.
Waitress is playing at the Adelphi Theatre and you can find tickets here.