REVIEW: Waitress, Leeds Grand Theatre, serving pie until tomorrow ***

The waitresses in Waitress: Sandra Marvin’s Becky, left, Lucie Jones’s Jenna and Evie Hoskins’s Dawn

SUGAR, spice, all things nice and not so nice make up the recipe for Waitress, the all-American musical based on the late writer-director Adrienne Shelly’s minor-key 2007 film. 

Flavoured with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles and book by Jessie Nelson, the show made its West End bow in 2019 and is now doing the regional rounds on its first tour.

Like Heathers: The Musical earlier this season, Waitress has drawn a predominantly female, young, highly enthusiastic audience, out to cheer on heroine Jenna Hunterson (Lucie Jones), waitress and ace pie-maker at Joe’s Pie Diner, a drudge of a cafe off-Highway 27 in small-town Indiana.

Going nowhere in an abusive relationship with layabout, wastrel husband Earl (Tamlyn Henderson), she dreams of escape by winning a prestigious $20,000 pie contest. What a time to discover she has a bun in her own oven.

Newly arrived in town is gynaecologist  Dr Pomatter (Matt Jay-Willis, busting out from boy band Busted), whose bedside manner is more akin to bumbling Mr Bean but is nevertheless most agreeably attractive, and you know where this will lead, married though they may both be, once he tastes her pies.

In other hands, other stories, the tone would be more bittersweet, more stridently feminist too, but brutish, feckless Earl stays in the wings for much of Act Two, the story instead being rich with comedic interplay, especially in the burgeoning relationships of Jenna’s fellow waitresses, one older and very self-assured, the other younger and nervous.

No-nonsense, sassy Becky (Emmerdale’s Sandra Marvin) makes out with the ponytailed grump behind the counter, Cal (Christopher D Hunt), while geeky, kooky Dawn (Evie Hoskins) discovers more than a shared love of historical re-enactments with fellow oddball Oggy (scene-stealing George Crawford, who lifts Act One just when it needs an extra ingredient).

Lorin Latarro’s choreography peaks with all three waitresses having their cherry on the cake at the same time, a climactic scene that brings the house down.

It would be misleading to suggest the savvy-humoured Waitress is too saccharine, even if the sung single-word refrain “Sugar” introduces each scene, but friendship and support, the pursuit of love, the search for joy and the quest for the perfect pie prevail over the darkness cast by Earl.

This is a musical, after all, and not a Tennessee Williams play, and so Diane Paulus’s direction is never too heavy on the salt, although always alive to the drive for female empowerment at the entertaining story’s heart.

Lucie Jones (The X Factor finalist in 2009 and Eurovision: You Decide participant in 2017) reprises her lead role from the West End, singing beautifully, especially in the signature song, She Used To Be Mine. Nelson’s book makes Jenna too sweetly accepting at first, but Jones absolutely captures the change into a woman determined to overcome adversity her way, ultimately free of male constraint.

Marvin’s Becky packs a punch, Hoskins’s Dawn is a daffy delight, and an unrecognisable Michael Starke makes a fine Midwestern gent as seen-it-all businessman and proprietor Joe.

Paulus’s direction is brisk, often as sharp as lime juice, sometimes sentimental; Bareilles’s songs have better lyrics than tunes but are delivered with energy and conviction; Scott Pask’s wheel-on set evokes the bustle of a diner and the wide expanse of Indiana beyond; and Paulus’s ensemble deliver sterling support, along with the band to the side of the stage.

Waitress’s musical pie is multi-layered, not perfectly balanced, more salted caramel than lemon zest, but certainly enjoyable.

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