Review: Waitress at Liverpool Empire ****
Waitress may contain enough sugar to turn an auditorium diabetic, but it’s not simply a toothachingly sweet musical confection.
Based on the late Adrienne Shelly’s bittersweet 2007 indie film, the Broadway and West End hit show – at the Empire as part of an inaugural UK tour - has a more troubling layer underneath its all-singing, all-dancing, meringue-light topping.
Jenna (played by Emmerdale and Casualty actress Chelsea Halfpenny) waits on tables in a small town Deep South diner and creates the creamy, calorie-laden confections which have its customers salivating.
But Jenna’s life is far from as perfect as her pies – behind the scenes she’s shackled to a wastrel man-child husband Earl (a deliciously awful Tamlyn Henderson) who belittles and bullies her, and those shackles are about to tighten with the discovery she’s (yes, you can’t escape the baking puns all together) got an unexpected bun in the oven.
For Jenna, baking is bliss. It not only sparks warm memories of shared moments with her late mother, but potentially offers the chance of a new beginning, while in the meantime a dalliance with a dishy doctor (Matt Willis) threatens to complicate matters.
Meanwhile a cast of gleefully colourful characters swirl around the main action, offering love, support and advice while engaging in their own romantic adventures.
Jessie Nelson’s script is crisp while Grammy Award-winning songwriter Sara Bareilles has created a soundtrack which, while lacking the kind of earworms that will have you singing the show’s songs on the way home, is packed with moreish melodies and lovely harmonies, supported by a six-strong on-stage band led by MD Ellen Campbell at the piano.
Above: Jenna (Chelsea Halfpenny) and Dr Pomatter (Matt Willis). Top: Chelsea Halfpenny as Jenna. Photos by Johan Persson.
They’re particularly evident in the biggest company number Opening Up, and in the numbers where Jenna is joined by waitress friends Becky (the rich-voiced Wendy Mae Brown) and ditzy Dawn (Evelyn Hoskins). Together the three women produce a gorgeous sound.
The sweet-voiced Halfpenny makes for a sympathetic Jenna, while Willis is an excellent foil as the neurotic Dr Pomatter who falls both for his patient and her sugar-laced pies, and George Crawford has a huge amount of fun as the eccentric, love-struck Ogie who woos waitress Dawn with declarations (of independence) and freeform poetry.
The West End production had a set flanked by two giant illuminated glass cases of pies. Designer Scott Pask’s touring version loses that striking framing, but there’s still a lot to please the eye, particularly in the Joe’s Diner setting, while there’s bright choreography from Lorin Latarro.
While most of the action takes place ahead of the interval, the emotional meat of the plot comes in a lower-key second half, reaching a climax in Halfpenny’s beautifully delivered ballad She Used to Be Mine, and with a life-affirming finale which offers a satisfying final sugar rush.