I feel like I’ve been bemoaning the sad state of musical theatre on the West End for years now. We’re getting too few new British works and too many lackluster disappointments. And while that’s all still true, Waitress has arrived, so I’m done complaining until the smile leaves my face, if that ever happens. Even though it’s an American transfer, this show is so FORKING wonderful that it is elevating the entirety of the West End. The Sara Bareilles musical, which opens officially today at the Adelphi Theatre, is exactly the show London needs right now: funny, heartbreaking, movingly acted, perfectly sung, and with an incredible score. It’s strange for me to give unqualified raves, but here I go, here I go, here I go again girls what’s my weakness? Um, musicals! pie? Dr. Pomatter?
Even though I trust that you’ll see Waitress as soon as you can - whether on Broadway, in London, or on tour - I’ma tell you a little about it because it’s my new fave thing and I just simply can’t stop won’t stop talking about it (or singing it in the shower). So Jenna, as played by the remarkable Katharine McPhee, sings about her three favorite ingredients for pie baking - “sugar, butter, flour” - and making pies and how that helps her deal with her shirty life, working in a diner and having a shirty slob of a jerk husband who takes all the money she earns and is mean to her friends. And her friends, Dawn (Laura Baldwin, hilarious and adorable) and Becky (Marisha Wallace, the fire emoji), are wonderful so only a real jerk ass jackwagon would be mean to them. Jenna accidentally slept with her husband who she haaaates so Dawn and Becky are like ‘hey Jenna let’s all chill in the bathroom and watch you pee on a stick and we will SING ABOUT IT!!!’ and Jenna is like ‘ughhh I don’t wanna know if I’m pregnant I’d rather just ignore any alien growth and then in 9 months be like those people on the old show ‘I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant’ and be like ‘maaaa there’s a baby in the terlet!!!!’ so just let me be’ and they’re like ‘no we have fun lyrics about drinking enough to make sure you have to pee’ (and I’m like, do some people really not need to pee all the time?) so Jenna pees on the stick and is like SHIT and then sings the greatest song ever extolling the virtues of what baking can do as she hopes it can save her from her current messy sitch. Then she makes a great pie for her gynecologist who unknowingly retired and you’re like jfc how bad is the American healthcare system if when she called to make an appointment with Dr. Oldlady they didn’t tell her ‘oh she RETIRED’?? what a mess. Anyway her gyno is now this cute adorkable awkward lanky blond guy which is suuuupes awks in a gyno fyi anyway he doesn’t eat sugar and she’s like what kind of dork doesn’t eat sugar?? and he tries her pie (not a euph) and is like ‘OH DIP’ and she’s such a good baker that they fall in love and it’s AMAZING and SAD and she dreams of getting away from the jerky husband but he thwarts her plans and then she sings another BEST SONG EVER about what a mess her life is and McPhee is like ‘do you think you’ve heard anyone with better vocal control, because hear this, mufuckaaa’ and she should have awards thrown at her and you’re like TAYLOR HICKS, REALLY GUYS???
Meanwhile, the girls make our cute little Dawn try online dating because she is a sheltered lil bun who’s never dated and she matches on an app I’m assuming was Christian Mingle with a crazy guy in the form of JACK MCBRAYER, ladies and gentlemen, as Ogie and even though he sings a song that would be a giant red flag in real life about how he is virtually a stalker and even though Jack’s not the greatest singer and even though I wanted a friend of mine to get his part originally, Jack’s Ogie is REDONKULOUS AMAZING. His signature pure hearted dorky schtick is so perfect for Ogie and whoever thought to cast him deserves Olympic medals in casting. I honestly want to bake that person a pie. Jack makes every little movement and line of Ogie’s a laugh riot which is a phrase I don’t think I’ve ever used before but I need to use it now because it’s true and also dorky and pure enough of a phrase to fit this situation. The only thing I don’t get about this show is that Ogie gets the last named-character-bow when for male roles he really is second only to Dr. Pomatter and I don’t understand how he isn’t billed and bowed higher?? He gets more songs than almost anyone! Anyway it’s worth it to see him alone, yet everything else is just as great. Becky’s lil side story is amazingly moving too, as she’s in a difficult marriage for sad reasons and needs to get her groove back and does so with a SURPRISE man and she sings a fire emoji song about how ya know shit just happens sometimes and who are you to judge?? Her big song really was ugh so good. Even the old man diner owner gets amazing material that makes me cry, even though this actor wasn’t a great singer, because he gets my favorite poetic lyric at the end of his big song that just wrecks me and honestly everything in this show wrecks me so just forking see it so we can TALK ABOUT IT, okay?
The writing of this show, with a book from Jessie Nelson, is so strong that the show would be great still with just okay talent, so this stellar cast is lifting it to remarkable heights. Katharine McPhee’s Jenna is thoughtful and purposeful, finding the right line between vulnerability and inner strength. Fresh from the Broadway production, which was her first Broadway role, McPhee reminds you quickly of the douchebag director’s first words about her on “Smash”: “She may be green, but she’s certainly trained.” Her control over her voice is spell-binding, and her “She Used to be Mine” is the best vocal performance happening in London right now. David Hunter’s Pomatter is endearing and goofy yet also a believable leading man and a bit of a heartthrob. The scenes between the two of them feel like the end of the second season of a TV show when the two meant-for-each-other leads finally come to each other, and they accomplish that in less than an hour. It’s so important to get that emotional beat right, along with all the deeply personal revelations on display. Waitress is an unabashedly emotional show, the kind that could easily feel twee or seem amateur, but this show is anything but. The strong writing and the precisely directed performances keep it fresh and real. I fear that the old-white-male reviewers that make up London’s main critic pool will discount the female-centric story and emotional depth as cutesy or girly when really it’s surprisingly profound.
If nothing else, Bareilles has given us an extraordinary original score for the modern age, with nary a weak track in there, a rare accomplishment nowadays. With every other aspect of the show just as strong, with laugh out loud moments and truly wrenching emotion, the whole show is destined to be a favorite of many, if not a genuine classic.
Waitress is playing at London’s Adelphi Theatre until at least the fall. They sell pie in the lobby and they pipe in freshly baked pie smell, which is lovely. They don’t have vegan pie though, which is b.s. The official merchandise stall in the lobby does not sell programmes - they are available from the podium by the entrance (so crowded, so dumb) and the pie man in the back. It’s a pretty terrible setup. The bathrooms are downstairs house right, so you have to like bolt out of the stalls to get all the way to the lobby and down. The staff left much to be desired. Also, during previews they had not yet set up barricades at stage door and it was a bonafide disaster of a mosh pit. According to my emails with the theatre, they’ve amended this situation, but I bet it is still a disaster. So the theatre staff and setup leaves much to be desired but the show is perfection.