I FIRST got acquainted with the story of Waitress back in July 2007, at 20th Century Fox’s screening cinema in Soho. Later, the first copy of the film, on 35mm, was couriered down to Dorset on a motorcycle. Screen Bites, the food film festival we ran at the time, staged its first UK showing for the festival’s finale audience in November, in the new Exchange at Sturminster Newton weeks before its “official” opening by Julian Fellowes.
The back story was a real-life tragedy. Adrienne Shelly, the film’s writer and director (and actress) was murdered by a burglar in her New York flat/office days before the premiere, leaving a husband and two year old child.
So news that the story was being adapted into a musical had an extra significance, and I was delighted to catch up with the UK tour at Southampton Mayflower. With the proviso that it seems a pity that Andrew Hollander’s ear-worm “The Pie Song”, composed for the film, hasn’t been included, the show is a triumphant tribute to its originator.
It’s the story of Jenna Hunterson, a brilliant pie-maker trapped in an abusive marriage to a self-pitying bully. She works with two other women (shy Dawn and frustrated Becky) as a waitress in Joe’s Pie Diner, owned by a curmudgeonly old man and run by Cal, a demanding boss with a soft side. When Jenna discovers she’s pregnant, she decides to enter a state pie contest and use the winnings to escape with her child.
So far so predictable, but Shelly’s story really isn’t, hence its enormous success across the English speaking world as a film, and its continuing magnetism as a big musical.
Oddly, the programme doesn’t even mention the designers – they are Scott Pask (set) and Ken Billington (lighting) – who have encapsulated a classic diner, a Great American Horizon and the claustrophobia of a joyless trailer home on stage with their spectacularly lit and brilliantly evocative set.
The Mayflower audience, packed to the rafters with a young and whoopingly enthusiastic audience, enjoyed a poignant, witty and plucky performance by Chelsea Halfpenny in the leading role, with Busted’s Matt Jay Willis as her doctor/saviour, Tamlyn Henderson as a selfish husband, Wendy Mae Brown (powerfully funny as Becky) and Evelyn Hoskins as the burgeoning Dawn. George Crawford is the gawky Ogie, Michael Stark is the reminiscing Joe and Christopher D Hunt is Cal in this all-singing, all-dancing show. A six-strong onstage band performs Sara Bareilles’ music, some of which is memorable.
It’s many steps on from the juke-box musical, with real emotional depth and a heartfelt message, invigoratingly performed by an excellent company. Well worth the journey … and the pie!