Waitress review - June 2019
"Whilst it has its flaws, Waitress is undeniably charming."After becoming an instant smash-hit on Broadway, Sara Bareilles’ musical Waitress opened in the West End in February this year.
Based on the 2007 film of the same name, the musical follows Jenna Hunterson, a diner waitress and gifted baker desperate to escape her abusive relationship with husband Earl. When she discovers she’s very unexpectedly pregnant, Jenna becomes even more determined to escape her dead-end life. Along the way she meets Dr. Pommater, who soon becomes more than just her gynaecologist, and with the help of colleagues and best friends Dawn and Becky, and diner owner Joe, she makes a start on a new life for her and her daughter.
The show is relatively unassuming; most of the action centres around our three leading ladies and their respective partners, with very little in the way of ensemble work or huge production numbers. Whilst this is refreshing, it does make one wonder if Waitress may have worked better as a play – the dialogue scenes are well-written, with comedic and heartfelt moments in equal measure, but a lot of the musical is forgettable. Before seeing the show I’d been aware of only two of its songs – “She Used to Be Mine” and “You Matter to Me”. Even immediately upon leaving, only one other song had stuck itself in my memory, and mostly for its sweetness and the moment it created rather than being particularly catchy; diner owner Joe’s "Take It From an Old Man". Sara Bareilles’s pop music background is strikingly evident – if you like your musicals to really be musicals in the typical style, then the songs in Waitress may well not be for you.
Katharine McPhee is astonishing as Jenna, creating a gentle but strong-willed character that we can’t help but root for. Her voice is powerful but not excessively so, with no fear of more delicate moments; there seems to be a trend amongst West End audiences in recent years to believe that more belt and higher notes equates to a better performance, but McPhee expertly avoid falling into this somewhat naive expectation. Laura Baldwin and Marisha Wallace both give strong performances; Wallace in particular is hysterically funny with a voice that stands out, even with her only having one solo number. It’s a shame, really, that the score doesn’t allow the characters of Dawn and Becky to shine more vocally; with only one solo number each, the talents of Wallace and Baldwin feel a little wasted. Whilst it seems on the surface to be a show full of dream roles for women, it can’t be denied that Jenna hugely dominates in terms of stage time. While she is our protagonist, a little more balance may allow audiences to feel more connected to other characters, too.
The leading men in the show are a little more confusing. David Hunter’s Dr. Pommater has great comedic timing and is lovably awkward, Jack McBrayer’s small role as Ogie brings the house down with it’s humour and even Peter Hannah’s Earl has some vulnerabilities that you can’t help but feel sorry for for a fleeting moment. The show is marketed so heavily on feminism, and definitely has elements to suggest the writers want us to believe solely in girl power and usurp all men; Ogie is almost frighteningly forward, Dr. Pommater cheats on his loving wife, and Earl’s abusive nature is clear. However, the men all have a lot of likeable qualities – particularly Shaun Prendergast’s Joe - and many of their negative ones are shared by their female counterparts. It’s hard to tell whether this is intentional, and the show’s real message is that we can all be flawed, or if the feminist message suggested in the marketing is just not very well expressed in the writing.
Ensemble performance is minimal in Waitress, but when they are used, they’re used well. Whilst they do appear as diner customers or wedding guests, more often than not they often act almost as set pieces, passing Jenna props or waiting for the three leading women to dance around them more than with them.
Whilst it has its flaws, Waitress is undeniably charming, with laughs and tears aplenty. It may not be high art or a ground-breaking piece, but it’s perfect if you’re after a fun, sugar-coated evening.
Review by Amie Bailey
11 June 2019, Adelphi Theatre