Waitress at the Adelphi Theatre: ‘less whipped cream and more filling, please’
Anthony Walker-Cook reviews Waitress, the sweet new transfer from Broadway with music and lyrics by Sarah Bareilles.
Being British, I must begin this review by asking the following question: is there anything better than a pie? With lots of gravy and mashed potato, eating a pie is being comforted within a pastry hug. Imagine, then, my discomfort at realising that Americans associate pies as being not sweet but savoury. Fewer things could be more sacrilege. However, the depiction of a humble woman trying to make her way in life against monstrous adversity in Waitress is enough to reconcile me to this Atlantic abomination, and under the direction of Diane Paulus this new show has certainly brought sweet and savoury notes to the West End.
But how sweet is Waitress? The story tells of Jenna’s attempts to leave her husband Earl, an abusive drunk. Jenna (Katherine McPhee) works at Joe’s diner, making delicious pies, the recipes of which come to her throughout the day. Her colleagues include the bulshy Becky (Marisha Wallace) and nervous Dawn (Laura Baldwin), a triumvirate of individuals all looking for love. When Jenna finds out she is pregnant, she goes to Dr Pomatter (David Hunter) with whom she begins a relationship. Having a pie in the oven is, evidently, always an exciting affair.
As far as musicals go, Jessie Nelson’s book feels surprisingly dark, but it is the music by Sara Bareilles that is the appeal of this show. A pregnancy ballet, the raunchy ‘Bad Idea’ or the exceptional ‘She Used To Be Mine’ demonstrate the variety of songs from Bareilles’ music. However, the pacing of Waitress is woefully eccentric: ‘The Negative’, wherein Jenna learns she is pregnant, comes minutes after ‘Opening Up’ with little information about her character.
Alongside this impulsive movement towards the songs of the show is McPhee’s steely Jenna. Other than her impossible marital situation, there is little that recommends this interpretation of Jenna to audiences in the first half of the show. One feels McPhee is too earnest, and relies too much on the writing. ‘She Used To Be Mine’, wherein Jenna sings to her unborn baby, is beautifully sung but with no true emotion. When Jenna finally throws Earl out, her empty facial expression proves a resolve closer to the unhinged Mrs Loveitt than a new mother.
Wallace and Baldwin put in good performances, though the former risks an over-baked emphasis on jokes with little background on her character. Baldwin, however, is delightfully neurotic and her happy ending (both in terms of narrative and in her new-found sex life) with Ogie (Jack McBrayer) is perhaps the only earned character development. This leads me onto the male performances, which were all a bit burnt. McBrayer offers frequent moments of comedic gold but his singing is best described as eager if not quite in tune. As Earl, Peter Hannah is lacklustre, and Shaun Prendergast is far from Betty Crocker. The saving grace is Hunter as Pomatter, whose awkward charm and good-guy attitude carries some of the better songs such as ‘It Only Takes a Taste’ and ‘You Matter To Me’.
Overall, Waitress left me satisfied. Nothing more, nothing less. Though it tries to have a message of female empowerment, this is undercut by the caricatured comedy of Wallace, Baldwin, McBrayer and the excellent Kelly Agbowu as Nurse Norma. Lorin Latarro’s choreography is subdued but mostly effective. Quite whether director Diane Paulus has placed emphasis in the right places seems rather uncertain. In short, less whipped cream and more filling, please. Otherwise, Waitress can feel a little crusty. A central question, really, is whether or not I would visit again and have another slice of pie? Maybe later, I’m full for the moment.
Waitress is at the Adelphi Theatre until the 19th October, 2019.
Production and feature photographs by Johan Persson.