Joe’s Pie Diner has opened its doors in Manchester for the first time, with the arrival of Waitress at the Opera House. Boasting a female creative team and a female-fronted cast and storyline, this heart-warming musical focuses on Jenna (Lucie Jones), a diner waitress seeking refuge from her unhappy marriage in pie baking and the friendship of her fellow waitresses, Dawn (Evelyn Hoskins) and Becky (Sandra Marvin).
Baking and its benefits as an escape are front and centre: delicious-looking prop pies are passed hand to hand by the cast; Jenna’s baking is choreographed to music; a catchy “sugar, butter, flour” refrain – the audio cue Jenna’s daydreams about new recipes – runs through the whole musical like lime curd in a key lime pie. This not only gives Waitress a unique identity amongst musicals but will also strike a chord with UK audiences, given the nation’s love of Bake Off and the surge in popularity of baking during last year’s lockdowns.
The score by Sara Bareilles bears the singer-songwriter’s distinctive mark, featuring cute (but not saccharin) folk-influenced songs with simple, heartfelt lyrics. They lend themselves to authentic dramatic performances, particularly when straying into darker areas, and the vocals from the cast throughout the show are excellent. The band providing the music live are positioned onstage, but only just – sometimes the sets obscure them, and at other times they are plainly visible, which is a bit odd.
Comedy is a key ingredient in this particular musical pie, from Cal the diner chef’s grumpy remarks to Becky’s wisecracking and Jenna’s imaginative names for her pie creations. The often adults-only nature of the humour climaxes – if you’ll excuse the pun – in ‘Bad Idea,’ a Carry On film-worthy sung montage of the three waitresses with their respective lovers. Unfortunately, some of the jokes rely heavily on stereotyping of the characters: from Dawn’s love interest, tax auditor Ogie, with his asthma inhaler, to Becky’s frequent turns as the “sassy black woman,” and single, nerdy Dawn displaying signs of anxiety and OCD. (That said, Dawn’s number ‘When He Sees Me’ absolutely nails the character’s fear of being noticed romantically in a finely tuned balance of comedy and feeling.)
However, the issue of one-dimensional characterisation isn’t one which affects Jenna – a rounded, likeable heroine full of kindness and talent, whose life and self-confidence have been thrown off course by an abusive relationship and a mundane waitressing job. Lucie Jones is excellent, inspiring the audience to root for her from the start – her moving solo ‘She Used to Be Mine’ is possibly the standout moment of the show – and this is why the story’s resolution is something of a let-down. Without giving too much away, it doesn’t deliver on the promise of the preceding scenes and leaves a question mark over how happy and fulfilled Jenna’s ending really is.
True to the understated style of the whole show, Scott Pask’s set designs effectively build Jenna’s world, gliding on and off in unflashy fashion with the assistance of the ensemble. The windows of the diner reveal a backdrop of the highway and an expansive sky, a promise of the world beyond this small town.
Overall, Waitress is a charming, original show with enough real warmth and sincerity at its heart to make up for its shortcomings.