By Flora Pick, Digital Deputy Editor
It is all too easy to be cynical when Sara Bareilles’ much-lauded eleven o clock number ‘She Used to be Mine’ comes complete with yet another laboured pie metaphor. But just try and deny the way the set opens up, removing the shadows of mundane existence to reveal in full a pastel sky and open road leading into the distance.
Adapted from the 2007 film by the late Adrienne Shelly, Waitress first appeared on Broadway in 2017, with songs by Sara Bareilles and a book by Jessie Nelson. The musical centres on Jenna, a waitress in a roadside diner facing an unwanted pregnancy that threatens to tie her down to her deadbeat husband, only to find unexpected comfort in the office of her OBY/GYN.
Now the UK and Ireland tour arrives at Bristol’s Hippodrome, providing an evening of saccharine sweetness cut through with a tang of reality. Expect interpretive baking dance. Expect heartfelt ballads. There may be medical malpractice, but it is choreographed with impeccable comedic timing.
There is something of the Lifetime movie to Waitress’s insistent ordinariness, though, when the show’s broad emotionality connects, it does so with sweeping power. Waitress is an empathetic show wherein good characters do incredibly morally dubious things and are granted the patience to work through the messiness of life. If adultery is your bag, then you will love the shenanigans these women get up to.
The interiority of a conflicted pregnant woman is a perspective that we don’t get to see all too often. Chelsea Halfpenny, as Jenna, makes for a compelling leading lady with a crystalline voice that unexpectedly comes to carry some real emotional intensity — her hopes, her rage, her exhaustion. Opposite such a powerhouse performance it is easy to pity Matt Jay-Willis as Doctor Pomotter, Jenna’s obstetrician and eventual lover (!!). Yet, in lieu of quite so striking a vocal impact, the ex-Busted member is able to tread the line of playing sexual-fantasy-dream-man-power-tripping-pervert with surprising nimbleness. The jury remains out on his dubious Connecticut accent.
Dawn (Evelyn Hoskins) and Ogie (George Crawford) were as delightful as was to be expected, as the pair are lucky enough to be granted the two best songs of the first act to track the course of their rapidly developing relationship with ‘When He Sees Me’ and ‘Never Ever Getting Rid of Me’. Meanwhile, Sandra Marvin and Christopher D. Hunt, as Becky and Cal, Jenna’s diner waitress and its chef — another pair endearingly cheating on their spouses — while lacking in quite as much of their own story development provide some much-needed comedic relief. The technical design of Waitress is breathtaking throughout, the whole show swathed in the hazy glow of either early dawn or yellowing dusk.
If there is a principal complaint to be had with Waitress, strangely, given the melodrama and vague after-school-special-ness of its plot, it is that it fails to lean enough into its tonal extremes. While there was laughter throughout the evening, the show's comedy was about as broad as its emotionality. When it came to interrogating the relationship between Jenna and her inadequate husband Earl (Tamlyn Henderson) it felt as though the show was unable to commit to the darkness of the situations it would imply, doing the horrors of quietly manipulative relationships a disservice.
The charm of Waitress lies in its kitsch. When Jenna’s now-grown, angel-faced child (Sophia Reed) is brought on in the final scene prompting ‘awws’ from the audience, it is of course emotionally manipulative. But it works. Waitress is the crying while eating from a pint of ice cream of musicals and it was clear, from the emotional reactions of the crowd as they exited the Hippodrome, that it provides a heartfelt catharsis that people crave. If you open your heart to Waitress, it will rush in to meet you.
Featured Image: Johan Persson
Will you be heading to the Hippodrome to see Waitress?