Alexa Price reviews Waitress, a hit comedy musical championing feminist causes and big laughs which recently came to Wales Millennium Centre.
Having not been to the theatre since the blissful years pre-pandemic, Waitress at Wales Millennium Centre provides a fabulous re-introduction to musical theatre in all of its glory. Behind the strong, cheesy American accents and massive variety of colourful characters, this production masterfully explores adult life – from friendship and marriages to unwanted pregnancies and unlikely affairs – all in the heart of Joe’s Pie Diner. The characters are warm and relatable, whether facing difficult marriages (and even more difficult affairs), or using dating apps to navigate their love-life, they’re all a notable product of a modern moment. Jenna, Becky, and Dawn also remind us of an eternal truth: the power of friendship and love to overcome the harsh realities life throws our way.
Based on a book by Jessie Nelson, Waitress has already taken the musical world by storm, brought to life by an all-women creative team. The production has a clear feminist objective with witty flair to boot. It first appeared on Broadway in 2016 after spending just a year playing at a theatre in Massachusetts. With music composed by Grammy Award-winning Sarah Bareilles and direction by Tony Award winner Diane Paulus, Waitress has all the makings of a hit.
The musical opens with our lead Jenna (played by BBC Casualty’s Chelsea Halfpenny) discovering she is pregnant and deciding to save her hard-earned money to better provide for her future child (and to escape from her controlling husband and their unhappy marriage). On top of hiding cash around their home and planning to enter a pie-baking competition, Jenna begins an affair with her married doctor. Jenna has a long history of baking that started with fond memories of her mother, who also lived through an unhappy marriage with her father – something Jenna is determined not to repeat with her own family. Her strength and integrity certainly make Jenna likeable, but it’s her fearless vulnerability which really marks her out as something special, especially in gut-wrenching numbers like ‘She Used to Be Mine’.
The subplot of Dawn and Ogie’s humorous and obsessive relationship is a stellar example of cringe humour at its best. Playing the stereotypical awkward character, Dawn is sometimes shy, quirky, and nasally-spoken. Her naïve outlook on dating life provides a foil of humour, but also gives the audience something to root for aside from the headline narrative. The vocals demonstrated at WMC meet the high credentials boasted by a musical of this kind, the cast consistently delivering performances that are nothing less than outstanding. There’s a palpable ease and chemistry between the cast, and a tendency towards sardonic comic relief – whether in song ‘The Negative’ (including lyrics: ‘focus on the negative’) or waiting for the results of a pregnancy test in ‘Club Knocked Up’.
Waitress works because – despite the gravity of the situations at hand – its lightheartedness provides a relatable angle to connect to the drama. Having the band on stage, too, is a refreshing twist. It heightens the importance of the music by making both band and performers appear as one – a fitting highlight to the sense of community which is so thematically strong throughout this musical. Waitress celebrates the lives of modern women in full technicolour, a feel-good reassurance that no matter what, things always work out in the end.
Find out more about Waitress here.