Sunday, 10 March 2019

Waitress - Adelphi Theatre

Of all the theatre I have seen over the last few years, Waitress has had possibly the most consistent and heartiest presence in my life. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason why. It’s not the most innovatively crafted or poignant show that I’ve seen. And it doesn’t do much to challenge or subvert what has come before it. But there’s something about the combination of all its elements – or ingredients, shall we say – that blend together into an irresistibly sweet recipe. (Sorry, but apparently baking wordplay is compulsory when writing about Waitress).

To begin to explain my adoration for this musical, I must first rewind to January 2017 when I saw the Broadway production on a fleeting trip to New York. As I have no patience when it comes to these things, I had already listened to the soundtrack a few times, but in no sense really knew the show.

Even through my bleary jet lag, I knew this was going to be a special one for me, and since then I don’t think a week has passed in which the music hasn’t accompanied daily life in some way or another. I’ve listened to A Soft Place to Land when dreaming, You Matter to Me when I needed a cry, What’s Inside by default when I didn’t know what else to listen to, and She Used to Be Mine when I just needed to sing it all out.

Evidently, I can’t review this London production with a fresh pair of eyes, and as much as I’d like to say I can detach from my experience of the Broadway production, my obsession with the soundtrack already poses both a heavily positive bias and an unavoidable comparison to the original cast. So instead, I’m going to commit the unthinkable, and return to my 2017 Broadway review, directly pulling out passages and reflecting on how these compare to my feelings on the London production.

I had listened to the soundtrack a few times before deciding to book the tickets, and although it was a lovely listen and comprised of some beautiful songs, I didn't fully appreciate the genius of Bareilles’ score until it came to life on stage. You can listen to a soundtrack and even know it inside out, but there will always be details that don’t become clear until they unfold with visual context. Melodies or lyrics that don’t necessarily sound ground-breaking to the ear, become something notable once paired with brilliant characterisation. Bareilles’ country-infused soundtrack is bursting with beautiful motifs and clever wordplay, and even the most comical and ridiculous numbers have moments of clarity.

This time round, I’m coming from a completely different place with the music, but I do agree that melodies and lyrics that don’t stand out from an audible perspective are often the ones that serve the superlative moments on stage.

I could write a dissertation on the music alone, so just to summarise in case it's not already obvious: I adore the soundtrack. But I also recognise the partiality that comes with this. Hearing music you love performed live is like a sweet taste of nostalgia, the spread of sunlight across the skin, hot tea as it warms you from the inside out. Of course, it also comes with the consequence of comparison. But we’ll get to cast in a bit, if you’re still with me.

The set is bursting with colour and detail, with scene changes as fast-paced and fluid as the musical itself, and Lorin Latarro’s choreography heightens every moment of hilarity.

The pace and fluidity of the show are still some of my favourite elements of the show, the way each scene pours into the next. The more you watch something, the more you fixate on the smaller details, and on this visit I was fascinated by the subtle but ever-flowing movement of the ensemble. We’re transported into a dreamlike state through the consistency of the set and the smoothness of the choreography, and this seems to mirror Jenna’s numbness to a lot of what is going on; her coping mechanism is escaping into her imagination.

What’s great about going to the theatre with different people is discovering the details that they pick out. My friend Marion pointed out the beautiful backdrop of the sky, which subtly changes throughout. That in turn had me noticing the stark contrast between the only scenes which don’t have any visible sky. In Earl and Jenna’s living room, the rest of the set is shut off, leaving Jenna trapped within these dark, dingy and seemingly inescapable four walls.

While the musical is filled with intelligent and witty moments, it does not go far beyond the usual realms of the genre or challenge any of its conventions.

I definitely still agree with this. I try not to let my love for the show act as a completely blinding bias; I know it’s not revolutionary. However, there is something to be said about Jenna as a character and her journey. Even now, in 2019, how often in 'mainstream' musical theatre are we presented with a strong female figure with genuine human flaws?

In our inevitable desire to pick apart morality in plot and end with a concise message, it can be easy to surmise that Waitress condones adultery, or that it takes another male figure to help Jenna identify her abusive relationship.

However, if we refrain from compressing layers of narrative into one swooping moral statement, then what we have is this: a strong female protagonist who also admits and embraces her flaws. Yes, Jenna has an affair, and yes, her relationship with another man helps her see the light, but this is a journey of understanding that you can be loved outside of the realms of abuse. And, without dropping any more potential spoilers, the ending really speaks for itself.

Jessie Mueller inevitably steals the show as Jenna, with her soulful, melancholic vocals and humble attitude.

I must admit, I was a little sceptical of Katharine McPhee as Jenna. I was thrilled that I got to see Jessie Mueller in the role in New York, but this - coupled with the fact that it’s her voice I listen to day in, day out on the soundtrack - left a lot of space for comparison. As a result, I wasn’t that enamoured by the rehearsal videos advertised ahead of the London production, but it only took a taste of McPhee’s vocals in the opening number to win me over.

An element of Jenna which she portrays particularly well is the passivity of someone who has been manipulated and controlled for years, someone who has learnt how to remove themself from their surroundings. McPhee’s Jenna is understated, but she plays the humility and gentleness of the character with such ease that it’s impossible not to fall in love. And that voice… I’m pretty sure butter would melt. 

In fact, the entire production is very well cast, with special mention to Marisha Wallace, Laura Baldwin and David Hunter’s hysterical characterisation, brilliant comic timing and impressive vocal prowess. 

Waitress is an uplifting, feel-good musical, that delicately balances dark themes within a comedic framework. Although there are a few moments in which laughter threatens to undermine the severity of the situation, the show’s genuinely moving and sincere moments save it from any such damage. I hope that this musical does make the expected transfer to the West End, as I will definitely be making a repeat visit.

Well, that repeat visit may have already become two, or three... A big thank you to London Box Office for enabling my first London visit, which is already spiralling into an unhealthily sweet obsession.

*This was a press/review ticket, but all words and opinions are my own.

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