I have to confess to craving a slice of humble-pie after watching Waitress, the latest big Broadway musical import, set in a Southern diner specialising in home-made pies.
The pitch to audiences here – “an uplifting celebration of love and laughter” – is enough to make a cynic reach for a barf-bag before entering the (warm-pie-scented) auditorium. The show, based on an admired but obscure 2007 film, written and directed by as well as co-starring Adrienne Shelly (murdered before its release), isn’t standard feelgood fare, though. It centres on the tough working lives and relationship angst of three waitresses, foremost the heroine Jenna, wedded to an abusive brute called Earl, by whom she is now unhappily pregnant.
Throw in carnal passion with her handsome (also married) gynaecologist as well as quirky amorousness elsewhere, and you’ve got a meatier than usual romcom that also smacks a tad of indigestible overload. It came away from the 2016 Tony Awards empty-handed and The New York Times talked of “slick surface professionalism rather than anything approaching real depth”. The cast album has been much streamed, but to the uninitiated it can sound rather icky. To be honest, I went in expecting the whole thing to get completely up my nostrils.
Yet after two hours of more-ish, tuneful entertainment (snappy folky-rocky-poppy music and lyrics from Sara Bareilles, book by Jessie Nelson) my carapace – crust, if you will – of scepticism had been breached, leaving warm appreciation oozing out. And if you’re averse to tongue-in-cheek, culinary-related metaphors, then do stand warned – from the opening, lullaby-like line “Sugar, butter, flour”, this is a show that takes joyous relish in whisking together the staple references of its workplace milieu with all the confused emotions that attend its principals’ appetite for love and companionship.
Diane Paulus’s production – featuring a mixed British and American cast superbly led by Katherine McPhee, who has already played Jenna in the US – combines supreme polish with a wonderfully up-tempo, rushed-off-its-feet inventiveness. Joe’s Diner seems to materialise by magic, with clientele and discreet live band, and the way a tray gets flung at the kitchen and caught by Stephen Leask’s greasy boss Cal signals the split-second timing that awaits.