What is it we dream about? What brings on a sigh? Piled peaches and cream, about 6ft high… No, I’m not indulging a personal foodie fantasy. Musical theatre fans will have spotted the quote from Oliver! as the orphans who only ever “get gru-el” dream of “Food, Glorious Food”.
I was reminded of this when listening to the virtues of Marshmallow Mermaid Pie, Pineapple Upside-Down Pie and Deep (Shit) Dish Blueberry Pie. In other words, I’ve finally seen Waitress.
Judging by the succession of names attached in the eight months since it opened in the West End, this is a production banking on what we might call ‘The Chicago Principle’. This is the casting ploy most famously operated by the legendary revival of the Kander and Ebb and Bob Fosse musical (about to begin its 24th year on Broadway) whereby its producers constantly recruit new cast members for short stints to generate media coverage and ticket sales for a property that might otherwise seem tired.
One of the downsides of this is that the rest of the cast has to spend a good deal of time rehearsing in new actors. The upside is that the current Waitress cast is strong.
In the lead role of pie-baking Jenna, Lucie Jones’ unaffected manner and plaintive, soulful voice are ideal for Sara Bareilles’ ballad-based, pop-country score – one part wistful to two parts winsome – and she’s surrounded by talent, especially a wonderfully focused Sandra Marvin as smart-mouthed Becky. Even YouTube vlogger and Strictly finalist Joe Sugg exceeds the expectations of cynics with a boisterous performance as Ogie that is just the right side of over the top.
Most of the show’s virtues reside in Bareilles’ score, notably the women’s trio in which our heroines dream of “A Soft Place to Land”. It is a musing of hope-filled dreams that features in many a musical, most especially Baby, Dream Your Dream from Sweet Charity in which lyricist Dorothy Fields painted marvellously precise future portraits for Charity, Helene and Nickie, the three dancers-for-hire at the tawdry Fandango Ballroom, as they dream of escape.
But although the sentiment in the Waitress trio is therefore more than a little – let’s be kind – tried and tested, the number itself is so beautifully harmonised and sung that the production gets away with it. But that ‘tried-and-tested’ element in the writing is the show’s biggest weakness.
The book, overwhelmingly well-meaning though it is in its sweet-tasting way, is utterly predictable. So much so, that by the time the grumpy diner customer Old Joe gives Jenna a heavily signalled second look as he walks out, I’d guessed the workings of pretty much the entire plot – and that was around 15 minutes in.
‘The one trick Diane Paulus’ pleasingly slick production misses is the presentation of the actual food’
Events then played themselves out with a consequent absence of tension, a dramatic problem compounded by a too-easily-reached conclusion. What had been presented as insuperable emotional difficulties were suddenly resolved with a plot shift that is usefully uplifting but insufficiently dramatised.
The one trick that Diane Paulus’ otherwise pleasingly slick production misses is the presentation of the actual food. Obviously, in the 1,500-seat Adelphi we were never all going to get a taste of Jenna’s pies. But wouldn’t it have been great if we were able to at least smell them?
Back in 1973, when Franco Zeffirelli directed Eduardo de Filippo’s family comedy Saturday, Sunday, Monday at the National, Joan Plowright’s matriarch and her maid, Anna Carteret, cooked delicious ragu live on stage every night, driving audiences wild with the smell of simmering onions, garlic, tomatoes, peppers and oregano. As Plowright later recalled, the theatre’s “sales of sandwiches rocketed”.
Musicals have often traded on food. Irving Caesar knocked up a dummy lyric on the spot for Vincent Youmans when the latter played him a melody for the hero to sing to the heroine for their 1924 show No, No, Nanette. It began: “Picture you upon my knee / Just tea for two and two for tea…” and went into the show unchanged.
In the Bernstein musical On the Town, taxi driver Hildy lures sailor-on-24-hour-shore-leave Chip to her apartment and sings: “I Can Cook Too”, but never gets near the stove despite or, rather, because of the lyric: “My oven’s the hottest you’ll find / Yes, I can roast too/ My chickens just ooze / My gravy will lose you your mind.” That rather suggests that lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green may not have been writing about cookery.
The absence of real food in Waitress notwithstanding, I concede that not all musicals would benefit from a wholly literal application of the idea. Mrs Lovett’s boast to Sweeney Todd of, among other things, “Shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top” might be a tough call for stage management.
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict