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Waitress at Adelphi Theatre, London – review round-up

Marisha Wallace, Katharine McPhee and Laura Baldwin and in Waitress at the Adelphi Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
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This is a landmark production. Waitress is the first West End musical – it was the first Broadway musical too – to have an all-female lead-creative team comprising writers Jessie Nelson and Sara Bareilles, director Diane Paulus, choreographer Lorin Latarro, and star Katharine McPhee.

Waitress director Diane Paulus: ‘Doing a new musical is not brain surgery, but it feels close to it’

The musical, finally receiving a London transfer after three successful years in New York, is based on the late Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film of the same name, and follows a talented American pie-maker who simultaneously falls pregnant by her abusive husband and in love with her gynaecologist.

It was a big hit on Broadway, scooping up four Tony nominations back in 2016, including best musical, and best score. This transplanted West End production is at the Adelphi until at least mid-October.

But does Waitress serve up a slice of success across the Atlantic? Does its all-female team cook up a classy show for the critics? Or does it all fall apart like wet pastry?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Waitress – Sweet and sour

David Hunter and Katharine McPhee in Waitress. Photo: Johan Persson
David Hunter and Katharine McPhee in Waitress. Photo: Johan Persson

Waitress is all about Jenna, an extraordinary, experimental pie-maker working in a diner in the American South who is pregnant to her abusive husband and falls in love with dorky Doctor Pomatter, her gynaecologist. Does this story satisfy the critics?

Most reviews reckon that Waitress finds a neat balance between the silly and the serious.

“Waitress is an odd concoction – just like one of the pies its heroine bakes,” writes Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★). “Sweet and sour, sentimental and funny, ethically dubious yet somehow life-affirming, it takes its wild ingredients and mixes them to make a strangely satisfying and charming show.”

“The show has to juggle an unwanted pregnancy, baking, family, affairs, an abusive husband and broad comedy all in one,” describes Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★). “Not that Jessie Nelson’s book and Diane Paulus’ direction struggle to achieve this. Everything about the show is polished, and the jumping between silly and serious never feels jarring.”

“It’s an admittedly lightweight story of a woman trapped by her circumstances, with a side order of occasionally eyebrow-raising sex comedy,” echoes Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★). “But the ratio of sweet flavours to tart ones is well-judged.”

“Here is an intimate everyday story of the power of workplace friendships and the joys of pie-baking – but not, as you might fear, full of sugar but also containing quite a lot of spice,” chimes Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre, ★★★★). “There are real notes of anguish and entrapment.”

Both Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★) and Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) confess themselves surprised at how moving Nelson’s book is, the latter admiring how it spins “adroitly between seriousness and skittishness”, and Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★★) was completely blown away: “This musical took me by surprise,” she writes. “I expected something much less touching, gritty and moving.”

Not everyone is entirely convinced, though. “Put it all together and… it’s weird,” says Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★). “A bittersweet drama about human frailty that’s also a wildly OTT sex comedy. Maybe the serious and silly ‘Waitress’ could exist side by side, but it’s when they overlap that it blows a fuse.”

Waitress – Sara’s songs

Katharine McPhee in Waitress. Photo: Johan Persson

Waitress’ songs come from multi-million-selling singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, who has garnered Grammy nominations galore, including one for this score. Do the critics find her contribution catchy?

Definitely – the songs are “funny, literate and enjoyable” according to Lukowski, “sumptuous” according to John Nathan (Metro, ★★★), and “pulse with melody and feeling” according to Shenton.

Billington calls the score “punchy”, Crompton reckons it’s got “some style”, Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) labels it “attractively earworm-infested”, and Hitchings calls it “propulsive” and “packed with poppy nostalgia”.

They are “perfectly constructed pop songs with a conversational feel, full of piano-driven riffs and jam-packed with baking metaphors,” writes Bano. “Bareilles is the consummate queen of hooks. Every song is instantly singable, each with beautifully melodic tunes full of unexpected intervals.”

“The comedy songs are very funny indeed,” writes Cavendish. “But the ballads are meltingly lovely.”

One tune stands out above them all. She Used to Be Mine is a “stone-cold banger” according to Lukowski, and “seems to lift the roof off” according to Treneman. For Matt Wolf (Arts Desk, ★★★), meanwhile, it “really does rank as one of the defining power ballads of our post-Wicked age: a slow build starting in quiet reminiscence and building to a transformative roar”.

Waitress – American idols

Katharine McPhee in Waitress. Photo: Johan Persson
Katharine McPhee in Waitress. Photo: Johan Persson

Directors don’t come much bigger than Diane Paulus across the pond – she’s the artistic director of Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre, and has a stack of hits on her CV, including the long-running Broadway production of Finding Neverland and a Tony award-winning 2013 revival of Pippin.

She delivers the goods again here. She “combines supreme polish with a wonderfully up-tempo, rushed-off-its-feet inventiveness,” writes Cavendish, while Lukowski observes how “Paulus really shows us why they pay her the big bucks: she keeps everything moving with a slick dynamism that frequently belies the changes in set, scene and tone.”

Katharine McPhee, meanwhile, found international fame as a singer-songwriter through TV series American Idol back in 2007, but she was already an acclaimed musical performer in California before auditioning for the show.

She doesn’t wholly win over the critics with her performance here – Bano notes how her acting sometimes seems “blank and expressionless” and Nathan calls her “a glassy, remote presence”.

However, Billington writes how she “endows Jenna with a vulnerability, kindness and inbuilt sadness”, Cavendish praises a “subtly pained and stoical, perfectly expressive performance”, and Shenton admires her “effortlessly natural acting style.”

Her real strength, though, is her voice. It’s “a thing of wonder” according to Treneman, and “undoubtedly one of the reasons to go see Waitress” according to Crompton.

Waitress – Is it any good?

Katharine McPhee, Laura Baldwin and Marisha Wallace in Waitress at the Adelphi Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
Katharine McPhee, Laura Baldwin and Marisha Wallace in Waitress. Photo: Johan Persson

A phalanx of four-star reviews, and one handy five-star write up from Ann Treneman in the Times, suggest that Nelson, Bareilles, Paulus, McPhee et al have served up a treat for the London stage.

A few critics have their misgivings about the story’s balancing act of sweet and sour and about McPhee’s acting ability, but most find the whole confection delectable, from the script to the songs, the singing, to the staging.

It’s a hit. Maybe not a sky-high hit, but a pie-high one for sure.

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