To get this out of the way very quickly: I am a slut for Sara Bareilles. I always have been. Little Voice was the soundtrack to at least four of my Summer holidays as a child. I know that album inside out and – in fact – on a particularly sunny day as a teenager I played through the entire piano book. Those songs are essentially tattooed upon my vocal chords.
So, you can imagine the naked thrill of discovering that Sara Bareilles was to be scoring a musical. The musical in question came to fruition in March 2016 on Broadway, originally starring Jessie Mueller as the lead Jenna Hunterson and also boasting the first female-led creative team on Broadway in the form of Diana Paulus (Director), Jessie Nelson (Book), Sara Bareilles (Flawless angel…oh and also Music & Lyrics) and Lorin Latarro (Choreography). Three years later, and I managed to get tickets to see the third preview at the Adelphi Theatre, London.
The premise of Waitress, for the uninitiated, is that Jenna Hunterson – a waitress and expert pie baker at Joe’s diner – unexpectedly becomes pregnant by her abusive husband Earl. She starts an affair with her gynaecologist Dr. Pomatter and sets her sights on a pie contest in order to gain her financial and literal freedom from her husband.
The show is a delicious spectacle. From the moment that you walk into the theatre you are met with the scent of a fresh pie. Indeed, there is even the option of having pie as an interval treat (alas, no cherry pie but you can’t have everything). In keeping with the theme, the starting curtain takes the form of a lattice pastry crust.
The performances of the cast were astounding. I was expecting killer vocals from leading lady Katherine McPhee (Jenna Hunterson), but I was pleasantly surprised by how much she inhabited the role. She has had more time in the role than the other members of the cast, having played Jenna previously on Broadway, but I was still moved by how much emotion she was showing during her numbers, such as ‘She Used to be Mine’ and indeed when she wasn’t the focus of a number, such as ‘You Will Still Be Mine’. Some of the most powerful moments were delivered by McPhee wordlessly as she reacted to her husband, Earl, or in monologues to her as-yet-unborn baby in the second act.
The rest of the cast are similarly outstanding. Marisha Wallace portrays Becky, a colleague of Jenna’s, and has her shining moment in solo number ‘I Didn’t Plan It’, as well as just generally scene stealing in the background as she sassily responds to pretty much everything. I saw Marisha as Effie White last year, so was thrilled to see her again. She is a powerhouse vocalist, and she puts every ounce of her passion into all of her singing throughout but it really shines through in her solo. Another of Jenna’s waitress friends is Dawn, played by Laura Baldwin. The slightly obsessive, socially awkward and timid character has the capacity to be incredibly annoying, and I was sort of bracing myself not to like her, but Laura played the part so endearingly I found it quite sweet. Moreover, she has a brilliant voice, and her love story was lovely to behold. Additionally, lots of the great moments in the show come from the moments between our three leading ladies, as opposed to with the male characters.
The staging was delightful. I was taken aback by how creative the design team were in reusing certain props, such that benches within the diner were repurposed in other scenes just by turning them around. The choreography was effectively realised. While there are no particular chorus dance numbers during the show, there were some delightful moments where the ensemble on stage would all perform a simultaneous movement, which was really engaging. It was also lovely seeing the band on stage for the duration of the show as part of the diner itself. I always enjoy when shows make the musicians part of the action – where would we be without them, anyway? Musicians are an often overlooked area of musicals, which seems entirely paradoxical, but there you have it.
Complementing the female leads are David Hunter (Dr. Pomatter) and Peter Hannah (Earl Hunterson). David Hunter plays a wonderful quirky and goofy contrast to Peter Hannah’s sadistic bully, and this works nicely. Additionally, David Hunter is pretty handsome and has a silky-smooth voice, so that helps you root for him as the closest to a male lead that this show gets. I also found that Earl was well realised. It would be easy to make Earl quite one-dimensional as a villain – and make no mistake there is no excusing his behaviour towards Jenna in the musical. However, the portrayal shows some hints towards where this behaviour comes from and really highlights Earl’s own insecurities and his own need for Jenna, when it would have been easy to show him as deliberately hurtful towards Jenna just for his own enjoyment, which would have been less realistic and compelling. McPhee’s performances opposite both of these men are delightfully captivating in entirely different ways. You can see through her interactions with Hunter how Jenna grows to feel safe and supported in the company of Dr. Pomatter, from their first number ‘It Only Takes a Taste’ through to ‘Bad Idea’ and ‘You Matter to Me’. Dr. Pomatter’s character is clearly very important in Jenna’s journey to finding her own confidence and self-love back. We can also see this change through the change in Jenna’s demeanour towards Earl, as her behaviour during ‘You Will Still be Mine’ as the diminutive housewife is at odds with the character that we can see belting out ‘Everything Changes’ at the close of the musical.
Not only were the singing and acting performances achieved by the cast skilfully delivered and emotive, but there was also heaps of humour. I was cackling for most of the evening, which made the dramatic moments even more powerful. The jokes landed beautifully, and I am particularly fond of the entire ‘The Negative’ number. The very simple “Shit” when Jenna finds out she’s pregnant is superb.
Some characters provide more comic relief than others. The main ones responsible for the audience laughs are Nurse Norma (Kelly Agbowu is a comic genius in this. She had me in stitches), Dr. Pomatter, Dawn and Ogie (Jack McBrayer). This latter character was one that caused me slight concern before even going to the evening. A celebrity casting is always a bit of a statement, and when you have someone like Katherine McPhee in the cast at least you know that she can sing. In the case of Jack McBrayer, this was less certain. Within the first two bars of the tremendously difficult ‘Never Ever Getting Rid of Me’, it becomes apparent that McBrayer is relying upon the comic relief aspect of the character. To his credit, he does perform this well, though I am unsure to what extent it differs from his popular character on ’30 Rock’. Having said that, his line deliveries were superb as this character and it’s not as incongruous as it could be in another production, so whatever the reason for his casting, it has been successful in many respects.
A cast member I am struggling more with finding positives for is Shaun Prendergast (Joe). This is the character who owns the diner where Jenna works. He is meant to be a curmudgeon, and I accept that. I love a good curmudgeon, but part of a good curmudgeon who you learn to appreciate on stage is that moment where the façade slips and, despite the harsh words, they say something deeply truthful. This moment is meant to come in ‘Take It From an Old Man’, which is such a beautifully written song and clearly shows this character’s ability to show compassion and caring, even if it is directed just at one person. Unfortunately, Prendergast didn’t appear sincere in this moment, but rather uncomfortable. It wasn’t a feeling that just came from his vocal performance, but from his delivery overall that appeared to say that he was more focussed upon the finer aspects of his American accent than actually delivering his lines with any meaning or intention behind it.
Having said that, that was my only negative. To summarise, a delightful evening of entertainment. A bright and funny musical that is full of heart and songs that will buzz around your head for days. It is commandingly led by the fierce leading ladies Katherine McPhee, Marisha Wallace and Laura Baldwin, and I am confident it will have a great run on the West End.
Official opening night for Waitress is 7th March 2019. You can find tickets here.
Jenna’s Pie o’ the Day
- ‘What Baking Can Do’ is a personal highlight for me on the soundtrack, and Katherine McPhee sang the SHIT out of it. It was incredible.
- I haven’t mentioned it here, but one of the most engaging moments in the musical for me was ‘A Soft Place to Land’. The music here is beautiful, and the choreography of the three leads, in concert with the lighting and the gorgeous harmonies was hypnotic.
- I was in Row C, and at one point I swear Katherine McPhee stared directly into my soul. I’ve never felt so seen.
- The staging transition at the end of ‘She Used to be Mine’ made me feel incredibly empowered, like if I started singing about my troubles I too would be able to magically move furniture.
- I need Nurse Norma to follow me around in the day to day life.
That shit might fly in Connecticut…One of Nurse Norma’s trademark nonsense zingers
To get away with an unprotected fu—
Funny how one night can ruin your whole life.Jenna keeping it a family show.
Pictures by Johan Perrson