Music and Lyrics: Sarah Bareilles
Book: Jessie Nelson
Director: Diane Paulus
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Broadway’s latest import to the West End is as American as cherry pie. Waitress, based on the 2007 film by Adrienne Shelly, was given a musical makeover in 2015 and prides itself on its female-centric narrative and creative team. Arriving in London with former American Idol and Smash star Katherine McPhee in the lead role, the story is as warm, sugary and sentimental as the cutesy pies that Jenna makes every day.
Trapped in a small town with an abusive husband, waitress Jenna dreams of escape but is unexpectedly pregnant as the show begins. Inspired by her late mother, Jenna’s delicious pies are the talk of the town and when a pie-making competition with a big cash prize is announced, her ticket out seems possible at last. But an affair with her doctor and plenty of love-life dramas for her colleagues Dawn and Becky mean Jenna’s dreams may have to get a little smaller.
If you like your culture full of sunny optimism, then Sarah Bareilles and Jessica Nelson’s light-touch will certainly appeal. There are big themes that cut through the show including multiple infidelities, depression, lack of opportunity, grief and disillusion that linger only for a moment before a new comic scenario or song lifts the mood. And while, as it turns out, the ending is slightly less predictable than you might expect, you can rest assured it will be a happy one all round.
But Waitressalso starts a lot of things it doesn’t have the gravitas to finish which at times is rather troubling; the domestic abuse storyline is essentially a subplot played out across two separate scenes in which Jenna’s husband Earl shouts a lot, but the approach is so simplified that it barely scratches the surface of what should be a more considered representation. Equally concerning is the comic love song Never Ever Getting Rid of Mein which Dawn’s date refuses to take her clear no for an answer and pursues her anyway, but it’s not creepy, they get married so it’s fine.
There is a lot to like about this musical, the burgeoning romance between McPhee’s Jenna and David Hunter’s Doctor Pomatter is really lovely, the pair have great chemistry so when they sing the multi-layered It Only Takes a Taste at the bus stop as well as Bad Idea andYou Matter To Me they swell the heart. Likewise, their comic montage of sex scenes on the gynaecological couch, each with a different flavour pie is brilliantly done.
McPhee is every bit a star, capturing Jenna’s girl-next-door wholesomeness but also the hollow in the centre of her life. Her voice is superb, building-up to her big solo in Act Two, She Used to Be Mine, which is glorious and earns a long ovation from the enthused audience. Hunter makes for an adorable rom-com hero, the doctor who frequently puts his foot in it with a bumbling charm that is so hard to resist, it makes the ending feel slightly wrong.
The surrounding characters are rather thinly sketched but that doesn’t stop the rest of the cast from wringing every ounce of value from their parts. Similar to her Eugenius character, Laura Baldwin’s fellow waitress Dawn is a geek turned vamp who sings about finding the one in When He Sees Me, while Marisha Wallace is fantastic as the straight-talking and sometimes crass Becky who breathes life into her every scene, particularly in her own solo I Didn’t Plan It. Jack McBrayer in his West End debut gives a bigger comic performance than anyone else but despite the problematic stalker scene, he gets plenty of laughs.
At times, the intimacy of the show feels lost on the Adelphi’s tall stage, a treadmill of scenes that never quite fills the space. Even the ensemble choreographed by Lorin Latarro seem to just float around holding pies and randomly lifting the leads. It is as American as Cherry Pie, sweet and flavoursome but also saccharine and over-earnest. Waitress has a lot of really great moments propelled by some excellent performances, but something is missing from the recipe.
Booking until 19 October 2019 | Image: Johan Persson