Wednesday, March 02, 2022

Waitress – human kindness amongst trials and temptations (Grand Opera House until Saturday 5 March)

Take three waitresses, stir in some new and existing partners, and bake in the stage oven until crisp for serving to an expectant Waitress audience.

The three aproned workers in Joe’s Pie Diner feel lonely, frustrated, and trapped. One tends to her incontinent husband. Another feels desperately single. The third, Jenna who bakes the diner’s pies to old family recipes, is happier in work than she is at home with her abusive husband.

While Waitress revolves around the consequence of Jenna’s queasiness in work – “Jenna, time to pee on a stick” is the great line of dialogue that cues up the tone-setting song The Negative in the diner’s restroom – the storyline (book by Jessie Nelson) keeps up with all three women’s journeys towards possible fulfilment and the ethical twists and turns of their decision-making.

The sombre underbelly of the show is laced with humour. Chelsea Halfpenny peppers Jenna’s demeanour with hints of confidence alongside her weariness of life. Halfpenny’s vocals are excellent, owning the stage and showing superb control in She Used to Be Mine. Becky (Sandra Marvin) is the raucous matriarch at work, and a carer at home. Evelyn Hoskins’ Dawn may be ditzy, but she’s openminded when she finds a match.

The younger male characters are much stronger singing than when they are speaking their lines. Busted’s Matt Jay-Willis really captures the initial hesitancy of Dr Pomatter, before Jenna’s gynaecologist loses his nerves and becomes a little too fresh with his patient (ie, vaulting around his practice room like a randy gymnast with a sugar rush). Duet It Only Takes a Taste properly establishes the path the pair will take. Geeky Ogie (George Crawford) finds his match in Dawn (as Evelyn Hoskins delightfully squeezes every possible laugh out of her character’s timid nature and mannerisms while Crawford’s over-the-top Never Ever Getting Rid of Me is a highlight before the interval.

Tamlyn Henderson’s Earl is a narcissist, solidly hateful, and director Diane Paulus doesn’t allow him a single hint of redemption. In fact, just about the only male hero comes in the form of Old Joe (Michael Strake), the owner of the diner, whose costume seems borrowed from Colonel Sanders but whose grumpy exterior may be hiding a lonely yet philanthropic heart. Starke’s second act song, Take It From an Old Man, is a standout moment from a vocally rich cast. The on-stage band – members of which sporadically wander out to play like minstrels among the cast – double as diner customers getting top ups of coffee throughout the show. Donning tricorn hats during the wedding song I Love You Like a Table is a lovely touch!

Good musicals establish their idiosyncrasies early on and insist that they persist throughout the production. Waitress has a seemingly never-ending supply of fresh pies, makes every prop fly into a character’s hand with a flourish, plays with the speed of scene changes, allows the audience to peek inside Jenna’s head when she becomes distracted, and most impressively uses adjustable black cloth borders to change the visual framing of different scenes. Jenna and Earl’s home has a low ceiling, emphasising how crushed she is in the abusive relationship. On better days, the diner’s vista opens up to the wispy blue sky. It’s very artistic and adds another facet to the storytelling.

The menu of songs throughout Waitress is musically varied. The softer ballads make most impact and show off the considerable vocal talent in the cast. Sara Bareilles’s lyrics and score, together with the very even performances, staging and set are somewhat stronger than the actual storyline which starts off faithful to the popular 2007 film before adding its own theatrical ingredients. When Jenna finally – and somewhat inevitably – decides on her new recipe for her life, she benefits from a life-changing (and audience eye-misting) act of generosity, and the show’s finale celebrates her verve and renewal.

The Waitress diner is at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 5 March before continuing its UK/Ireland tour.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

No comments: