Douglas Mayo reviews Waitress the musical starring Katharine McPhee at the Adelphi Theatre, London.
7 March 2019
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Four years after its Broadway debut, Waitress the musical has arrived in the West End. Based on Adrienne Shelly’s film of the same name, the musical features a score by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles and a book by Jessie Nelson and is directed by Diane Paulus and choreographed by Lorin Latarro making it the first musical in West End history to have four women in the top four creative spots.
Bareilles has bought forward a score which is contemporary, tuneful, develops plot and characters with some stand out songs that in the tradition of Broadway of yesteryear could easily be stand-alone hits. For her first Broadway show, it’s a remarkable achievement.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the book. There are a lot of characters on stage with some fairly complex relationship problems and Jessie Nelson’s book never seems to be more than a superficial sketch which impacts on the strength of Bareilles’ score. Luckily, the score is so strong that it compensates in some part for these inadequacies.
Waitress is blessed by a phenomenal cast headed by Katharine McPhee. A few acting hesitations aside McPhee delivers powerhouse vocals with near perfect diction. McPhee makes her West End debut in the role of Jenna, a role which she recently played on Broadway. It’s an impressive debut which she easily delivers to the entire Adelphi audience and that’s no mean feat.
Playing Becky and Dawn, Jenna’s co-workers are Marisha Wallace and Laura Baldwin. Both have impressive comic timing and vocal chops to match, perfectly complimenting McPhee. Wallace’s Act Two opening number I Didn’t Plan It threatened to stop the show, we are fortunate that this West End adoptee decided to stay with us after the closure of Dreamgirls. Baldwin’s demur Dawn really comes into her own opposite 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer, also making his West End debut as Ogie. McBrayer’s performance is comedy gold. Together with Baldwin, they come across as perhaps the only two fully developed characters in the piece.
In the role of Dr Pomatter, married and newly arrived in town, David Hunter stakes his claim as a major West End leading man. His comic timing is perfection and his scenes with McPhee are a riot. Peter Hannah makes the most out of Earl, the villain of the piece but the book just didn’t give the character any substantial level of threat to make us overly concerned for Jenna.
The tremendous Waitress Band under the direction of Katharine Woolley are on stage throughout. Paulus ensures that there is always a musician on stage providing underscoring or accompaniment which eases that perennial problem of people breaking into song for no apparent reason. It’s a move that grounds the show and combined with the feeling of mid-West America provided by Scott Pask’s set and Ken Billington’s lighting design, the show a real organic feeling. Choreographer Lorin Latarro’s choreography is subtle and brilliantly integrated into the show in such a naturalistic way. Full marks too on the sound front, Jonathan Deans’ design is flawless and gives the appearance of not being amplified at all.
Book problems aside, Waitress still delivers a great night in the theatre. This will have been my second visit to the show and whilst the performances develop, so too does the enthusiasm coming from the audience.