Photo credit: Johan Persson

Based on the 2007 film of the same name by Adrienne Shelly, the musical adaptation of Waitress made its Broadway debut back in 2016 and has now made the leap across the pond to London’s West End, setting up shop at the Adelphi Theatre. Singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles is responsible for the music & lyrics and Jessie Nelson wrote the book; with a female-led creative team (including director Diane Paulus), it’s something of a landmark production.

The show is set in Joe’s Diner in the American South, specialising in an ever-increasing range of pies that are invented and made by waitress Jenna, following in her mother’s footsteps with some creative & bizarre names for her bakes. She’s stuck in a marriage with her controlling & abusive husband, but when she hears about the hefty prize money on offer at a prestigious pie-making contest she thinks there may finally be a way out – though discovering that she’s pregnant brings an added complication. And she’s not the only one at the diner with problems: both Cal & Becky love their partners but their marriages haven’t worked out as they’d hoped, and Dawn is panicking about what might go wrong (or right!) if she takes a chance & signs up with a dating agency. Will they all find a way to complete happiness – or are they destined to settle for what they’ve got?

Sara Bareilles is part of an emerging line of pop & rock songwriters to find success in the theatre, writing original music rather than providing a back catalogue for a jukebox musical; other recent success stories include Dan Gillespie Sells of The Feeling (Everybody’s Talking About Jamie), Kele Okereke (Leave to Remain), and Cyndi Lauper (Kinky Boots) – Richard Hawley has also soundtracked the soon-to-open Standing at the Sky’s Edge at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. Whilst a successful songwriting career outside of the theatre is no guarantee of instant success, let alone compatibility with the format, it does potentially bring a different skill set to the job – something that can be more suited to a musical set in the present day, as a big ol’ show tune isn’t always the answer. The country tinge fits perfectly with the setting and also allows the score to go off in different directions, embracing a rockier side (You Will Still Be Mine) as well as going into full ballad mode (You Matter To Me).

Having never seen the film, I don’t know how closely the show follows the story and its style, but I have to say that it’s refreshing to have such a good book (Nelson) in a new musical – this is usually the problem area, but Waitress passes with flying colours. It’s incredibly funny and packed with one-liners, but it doesn’t sacrifice the quality of the storytelling for cheap laughs; the show is well structured, not overly long, and has a decent balance between dialogue & song. It’s also brilliant that more female-centric stories are being told on bigger platforms; I especially like that it addresses the idea that not all women see child-rearing as their primary reason for being – and that there’s nothing wrong with not wanting to have children.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

The diner set (Scott Pask) really is a thing of beauty: a fully stocked counter area, tables & chairs that glide effortlessly in & out, a vibrant neon sign, and even space for the band to play in full sight over on the right-hand side. I like that they’re not afraid to use an emptier stage during certain scenes – a fine example is She Used To Be Mine, with Jenna’s living room stripped away and leaving her on stage alone. The display cases full of pies that frame the stage are also a nice touch.

A wonderful cast has been assembled for this production, with many standout moments between them. Kelly Agbowu deserves a mention for the sheer amount of sass she brings to the table as Nurse Norma, leaving the audience in stitches at the slightest line. It’s undeniable that Earl (Jenna’s husband) is far from being a good person, but Peter Hannah does well not to veer into a caricature of a villain in his portrayal; Shaun Prendergast’s rendition of Take It From an Old Man is a really moving moment, and proves that Joe isn’t the complete curmudgeon that he projects to the world. Marisha Wallace is always terrific value, and as Becky she brings both impeccable comic timing and powerhouse vocals to the table – I Didn’t Plan It is a real highlight. Jack McBrayer may not have the best singing in the world, but it actually makes his performance as Ogie all the more endearing – he is, however, side-splittingly hilarious, and (opposite him) Laura Baldwin is very well suited to the role of Dawn.

David Hunter couldn’t have been more perfectly cast as Dr Pomatter. He has a superb instinct for comedy, both in his timing and ability to deliver excellent visual gags: his facial expressions are priceless, and his commitment to the physical comedy has to be applauded. Hunter’s vocals are warm & smooth, and he creates some beautiful harmonies. Leading the show is Katharine McPhee, who has also played Jenna on Broadway. She has an absolutely stunning singing voice, which is a real treat to listen to both solo and in group numbers. McPhee is naturally funny, nailing her one-liners; she captures the emotional side to her character, as well as her yearning for independence and the chance to follow her passion.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

My verdict? A new musical that proves that when you get the basic ingredients right, you really are in for a treat – the music & book are brilliant, and it is performed to Star Baker standard.

Rating: 5*

Waitress runs at the Adelphi Theatre until 19 October 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office. The next cast album karaoke will take place on 18 March 2019.

Post courtesy of SeatPlan: https://seatplan.com/

8 thoughts on “Waitress

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