It would be unfair to compare West End classics such as ‘Les Miserábles’, ‘Wicked’ and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ to ‘Waitress’, The Adelphi Theatre’s newest addition to the collection of travelling Broadway hits that its housed over the years. ‘Waitress’ has been around for less than a decade – having only transferred to Broadway in early 2016 – but it managed to garner significant traction within the musical theatre community before it opened at the Adelphi last week. The show does, however, have a standard to live up to, as the Adelphi has been home to a number of iconic shows – ‘Chicago’, ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’, and ‘Kinky Boots’, to name but a few.
Based on the 2007 film of the same name, ‘Waitress’ tells the tale of Jenna Hunterson (Katharine McPhee), a pie maker and server at an American diner, who unexpectedly falls pregnant by her abusive husband Earl (Peter Hannah). Supported by her two co-workers Becky and Dawn (Marsha Wallace and Laura Baldwin respectively), Jenna balances her work, marriage, and preparation for the arrival of her baby, all while producing unanimously revered homemade pies.
Theatre-goers were welcomed into the Grade II listed venue on Friday evening by the delightful smell of freshly-baked pies, a subtle feature first introduced when the show began at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway three years ago. As patrons made their way to their seats, there was an opportunity to admire the stage curtain – a detailed lattice pie crust – and the proscenium arch, in which were stored dozens of pies, several of which featured in scenes in the production.
The first act began with the two opening numbers back to back – “What’s Inside” and “Opening Up”. Immediately, it became clear that ‘Waitress’ was no ordinary musical. The production is, in some regards, rather unique. The six-piece, self-conducted orchestra – placed on a moveable dolly for convenience – remains present on the stage for long durations during both acts. Not only this, but a number of the twenty-two songs composed by American singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles were noteworthy for their contemporary, pop-song style – upbeat choruses with catchy hooks and repeated four-chord patterns, something not found in musicals from the late twentieth century. In this respect, ‘Waitress’ can be compared to ‘Dear Evan Hansen’, another musical that has recently gained traction as a show that simultaneously captures the magic of ‘traditional’ musical theatre whilst making the performance genre accessible to a wider, younger demographic.
The first act sped by, with several catchy numbers – such as “When He Sees Me” and “It Only Takes A Taste” – placed within scenes that were helping to develop the various storylines nicely. Credit should be given to Scott Pask (Set Design) and Suttirat Anne Larlarb (Costume Design), whose contributions to their respective peripheral elements helped to further immerse the audience in Act One. The interval arrived during what felt like the peak of several of the plots, which left the audience eager to watch the second act. McPhee and the other named characters performed cohesively and to a consistently strong standard, and the ensemble’s supporting harmonies throughout the show added layers and textures to the tracks that the instrumental sextet could not always provide.
Unfortunately, the performance peaked before the intermission. The second half felt drawn out, with several of the songs (“I Love You Like A Table” and “Take It From An Old Man”) appearing to be there more to fill time rather than to propel the plot. Bizarrely, the final fifteen minutes were the complete opposite, with several of the plotlines rushed into a messy ending, wherein every conflict had been inexplicably resolved. Not only this, but the use of brief, jarring ‘dream sequences’ in the midst of scenes was overdone, and disrupted the flow of the whole show. This odd balance, combined with the substantially slower tempo of some of the ballad-style songs during the show’s slightly underwhelming climax, meant that the energy that the audience exerted during the first act was not mirrored during Act Two.
Arguably, the stand-out performance within the show was not that of McPhee, but David Hunter’s performance as Dr. Jim Pomatter. Hunter’s characterisation of the awkward but friendly and ultimately lovable gynaecologist left the audience chuckling long after each of his many, many uncomfortable quips, and his vocal performance beautifully complemented McPhee in their duets (“Bad Idea” and “You Matter To Me”). Pomatter is the ultimate depiction of that ‘nice guy’ that everyone knows and gets along with but is consistently hopeless and painfully uncomfortable in romantic situations. His character depth extended beyond the typical ‘2-D’ qualities that a singing, dancing protagonist may possess. This made the whole show more engaging, and the first act sped by. McPhee’s characterisation and southern drawl, on the other hand, were strong, but not exemplary. Whilst there is no doubt that she is a talented singer – having first risen to fame during Season 5 of American Idol – her voice lacked the power and pitch-perfect accuracy possessed by the vast majority of noteworthy ‘MT’ soloists.
The cast and crew received a standing ovation from the sell-out audience during the bows after the finale. The effort put into the show by the creative trio of Sara Bareilles (Music & Lyrics), Diane Paulus (Director), and Lorin Latarro (Choreographer) should be commended, as the production overall was very entertaining. However, several key decisions (such as placing the small band onstage, limiting its size and instrumental range) meant that some aspects of the performance felt a little flimsy.
‘Waitress’ joins the likes of ‘Hamilton’, ‘Six’ and ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ as part of a once-niche but now ever-growing pool of musicals that is redefining the performance genre. A welcome change in the industry, for sure, but it might be a little while longer before anyone manages to find the perfect balance between modern and traditional.