Britain might not share America’s pie-loving tradition, but there’s no doubt it believes in bakery as a force for good. That might be why Sara Bareilles’ twisted romcom of a tuner – another big Broadway hit setting up shop in London – found an immediate audience in the West End. With a cult score that pulled in a large fanbase online, Waitress dishes up a musical theatre treat.
Based on the hit indie film written by the late Adrienne Shelly in 2007, Waitress tells the deceptively cute story of a small-town restaurant server stuck in an abusive marriage. Only Jenna Hunterson finds an outlet for her emotional agonies in baking – specifically pie-making – translating every tricky situation into a themed pastry filling: the choicest cherries for a Sweet Victory Pie, sharper fruits for her ‘Berry the Bullshit’ speciality. She’s one of the most loveable characters in musical theatre.
When Jenna becomes unexpectedly pregnant, she embarks on an extramarital affair with her gynaecologist Dr Jim Pomatter – one that puts her safety at risk should the secret come out. Encouraged by her boss Cal and her colleagues at the diner, Jenna enters a local pie-baking competition, eyeing the prize money as an opportunity to leave her marriage and break free from the town – only life’s rarely as sweet as it seems and it’s almost never as easy as pie.
Bareilles’ score is stuffed with quirky appeal, and she fills Jessie Nelson’s self-aware book with screwball numbers about pregnancy tests, unwanted conceptions and abusive spouses – but it builds to a big soaraway belt number in ‘She Used to Be Mine,’ a passionate lament for female empowerment.
As musicals go, it’s morally complex, with every character conflicted or compromised in some way. Diane Paulus’ production gives the whole thing a gloss, and a sprinkling of star performances, including pop star Lucie Jones, add a dusting off glamour. But if that all makes Waitress looks cutesy, even soft in the centres or a little pie-eyed, it’s not. Beneath its sugary surface, there’s substance to savour.