Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 28th June 2022
The last musical I saw that was based around pie-making was Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. This show has a completely different flavour. Based on a film from 2005, this hit musical is on the road at last. It’s the story of Jenna (Chelsea Halfpenny) who is not only the titular waitress but also something of a master baker. Her pie is the talk of the town and, this being small town America, when they talk of pie, they usually mean sweet dishes and desserts.
The scene is Joe’s Pie Diner and it’s populated with a host of eccentric characters. Everyone we meet is clearly defined by their personal quirks. Jenna’s co-workers are Becky, the sassy black one, and Dawn, the goofy, nerdish one. Their boss is manager-cook Cal, who is irascible, and they are visited daily by the diner’s grumpy owner, Joe. An ensemble makes up extras but also, with some nice touches of physical theatre, represent what’s going on in Jenna’s mind.
Jenna is at a turning point. Her redneck husband Earl has put a bun in her oven, thwarting her dreams of leaving him, but then Joe tells her of a pie-baking contest where the prize money would be enough to set her up in a new life… But then Jenna goes and falls for her gynaecologist. Things are looking up, you might say.
Jenna’s the most grounded of the characters, and Chelsea Halfpenny plays her with heart and warmth, proving she can belt when required by the score. You can’t help liking her. David Hunter is hilarious as handsome Doctor Pomatter, socially awkward and gauche, making an unusual leading man. Wendy Mae Brown lifts her Becky above the stereotype – her rich, chocolate voice a real treat when she finally gets a solo. Evelyn Hoskins’s Dawn could quite easily be Hairspray’s Penny Pingleton, playing the comedy very broadly. Again, we can’t help liking her. Even sour-tempered Cal (Christopher D Hunt) has his moments.
Dawn’s dating-site suitor comes along and out-quirks everyone: George Crawford in a scene-stealing role as Ogie. And there is more to Tamlyn Henderson’s Earl, Jenna’s controlling, redneck husband, the villain of the piece; we get to glimpse his vulnerability and why Jenna fell for him in the first place. There is also some delicious sarcasm from Scarlet Gabriel’s Nurse Norma. Michael Starke (yes, Sinbad off of Brookside!) channels Colonel Sanders for his turn as Joe, something of a father figure for Jenna. His song, Take It From An Old Man touches even my jaded heart.
Music and lyrics are by Sara Bareilles, and it’s a jaunty, likeable score. beautifully played by the on-stage band, led by Ellen Campbell. Almost everything is sweet and upbeat – even a number about doing a pregnancy test. Jessie Nelson’s book is peppered with good humour that the cast plays to the hilt. Sometimes, the comedy feels a little forced and the resolution is a little too pat – but this is musical theatre, so we allow it.
All in all, Waitress serves a lot of feel-good fun, keeping on the right side of saccharine sickliness.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆