WAITRESS

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.   at _WOLVERHAMPTON GRAND.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _2nd JUL.

June 28, 2022

images © Johan Persson.

Note: TWE recently reviewed  ‘Waitress the Musical’ earlier in its tour. Given that this is the same touring production, what follows is a revised version of that same review, updated for its visit to the Wolverhampton Grand, including cast and other changes, most notably David Hunter replacing Matt Jay-Willis in the role of Doctor Pomatter.

There’s probably a wealth of terribly punny lead-ins for a review of Waitress the musical. One that bandies around the obvious quips, such as it having ‘all the right ingredients’, or being a ‘treat’ of a show. But, quite frankly, I’m not going to rise to it.

…Wait.

Glib opener aside, in truth Waitress doesn’t really need any such extraneous fluff to sell itself. Fittingly so, given that here is a show that soars highest when keeping itself most grounded. Based on Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 indy flick of the same name, it perhaps at face value isn’t the most obvious tale to get the musical treatment, but in many ways that is precisely what works.

It pitches the tale of kind-natured baking supremo Jenna (Chelsea Halfpenny, in a star-defining turn), whose life has hit a dead end of humdrum mundanity, met with a loathsome, self-pitying drunk of a spouse. She only really feels alive when baking – a carryover from a loving mother during an equally troubled and abuse-stricken childhood. As the de facto pie maker at a quaint, off-highway, all-American diner, her days bandy between a miserable home life, and an unfulfilling work one. At least at the latter, she has her baking, and the company of colleagues-cum-best friends Becky (Wendy Mae Brown) and Dawn (Evelyn Hoskins).

When an unexpected, impending problem comes home to roost (with a countdown of, say, nine months…), Jenna’s life is thrown into an existential free-fall, only compounded when she is assigned the town’s handsome new gyno, Dr. Pomatter (David Hunter).

 Serving up a legacyWaitress, the musical, is based on the 2007 indy film of the same title. The film was written and directed by, and co-starred the late Adrienne Shelley (pictured above, © Searchlight Pictures), in what would tragically be her final film appearance. The actress was murdered, aged just 40, in her home, prior to the film’s release. The film, and this subsequent musical adaptation, serve as a lasting legacy for a talent cut tragically short.

The broader strokes of Waitress are fairly obvious from the off, and yet there’s something delightful about seeing so many of its central issues and messages not only being tackled in a musical, but indeed one where, for the most part, the songs only enhance and cement the delicateness and sensitivity with which such important and heavy topics are broached. There’s a sense of delicate restraint and character-centric focus that pulses throughout every ebb of Waitress, one that takes in issues of loneliness, perinatal depression, aimlessness, infidelity and so much more.

It helps immeasurably that it’s anchored around an extremely relatable and loveable core cadre of characters. Again, working off of Shelly’s original screenplay, Jessie Nelson’s book is warm, uplifting yet not shy of going to brutally truthful places with its characters. The same can be said of Sara Bareilles’ lovely music, which, much like the show around it, are at their strongest when anchored in Jenna or her friends’ everyday plights. Not since Once has a show so capably and movingly delivered a roster of musical numbers that keep it so simple yet earnest, and rarely sacrifice their heart and earnestness for cheap showmanship.

 Serving up a legacyWaitress, the musical, is based on the 2007 indy film of the same title. The film was written and directed by, and co-starred the late Adrienne Shelley (pictured above, © Searchlight Pictures), in what would tragically be her final film appearance. The actress was murdered, aged just 40, in her home, prior to the film’s release. The film, and this subsequent musical adaptation, serve as a lasting legacy for a talent cut tragically short.

In fact, it’s precisely because of this that, midway through, Waitress threatens to start spinning its wheels a little. Despite the fact that both are played to sublime perfection by Evelyn Hoskins and George Crawford, respectively, who each demonstrate some serious comedic and vocal chops, the blossoming relationship between nervy Dawn and nerdy Ogie feels ripped from a somewhat less classy show altogether. Not only is it set up and resolved fairly quickly, their hijinks, whilst hilarious and masterfully performed in isolation, don’t gel well with the earthier delights around them.

It’s easy to see why the creatives felt the need to inject some more conventional musical fare into proceedings, but in truth it ends up merely adding one too many cherries on an already satisfying pie.

That isn’t too say that Waitress is in any way a self-important or overly sobering affair. Quite the contrary – a turbo-charged Act II ensemble number is, quite literally, a romp, and Wendy Mae Brown’s Becky is a riot throughout, with rapid-fire put-downs and sass to spare (and characteristically of powerhouse voice).

In smaller turns, Scarlet Gabriel grabbed big laughs as sardonic, no-nonsense Nurse Norma during Act II, whilst screen and stage veteran Michael Starke gives the very definition of a supporting turn as the diner’s slightly cantankerous proprietor (with more than a passing look of Colonel Sanders about him). Starke’s experience beams from every line, quip and gesture, presenting in his ‘Old Joe’ one of the best and most beautifully observed supporting turns of the year.

“A consummate pro, Hunter’s rich vocals and irrepressible charisma elevate what was already a winning recipe into something even more delicious…”

Making a joyous, nervy, quirky and neurotic return to the tour is David Hunter‘s iteration of Dr. Pomatter, the show’s central love interest – and kindly, welcome distraction – for Jenna. Hunter’s musical experience shines through, navigating the tricky balancing act of being both genuinely funny and goofy (with some top knotch physicality), whilst still providing an earnest, loveable centre around which Jenna’s troubles and frustrations can whirl. A consummate pro, Hunter’s rich vocals and irrepressible charisma elevate what was already a winning recipe into something even more delicious.

For whilst it takes its characters and their plights in directions both amusing and at times deeply emotional, it is ultimately the irrepressible feel-good of Waitress that rises to the top. Nowhere is this more evident – or, indeed, crucial – than in Halfpenny’s steering of the ship as Jenna. Not only does the young actress raise the roof with the big belts asked of her – including in new seminal ‘She Used To Be Mine’ – but equally assuredly does she navigate the more delicate and sensitive beats of the character. Immensely likeable, her Jenna radiates warmth and relatability, and if Waitress is anyone’s triumph, it is fundamentally hers.

Scratch out a recipe for Waitress to be a success, and this touring production would have it pretty much oven-ready. It’s simply a lovely, wholesome slice of theatre, albeit one with some hefty emotional crust to go along with its juicy, tender filling. The icing on the cake is its breadth of beautiful, powerful performances and sharply observed musical numbers that tell a story that never feels either over-baked or under-done.

So much for avoiding the puns… crust and pastry, Waitress really is a treat.

Here is a slice of musical pie well worth savouring, with a bravura delicateness to its finish. The return of firm favourite Hunter, alongside its star-making lead, only serves up an even sweeter, more satisfying slice of pie than was already on offer.

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