Brighton Year-Round 2022
Keyboard/Musical Director Ellen Campbell, Keyboard2/Assistant MD Denise Crowley, Bass Guitar/Double Bass Oliver Copeland, Drums Jacob Booth, Guitars Alex Crawford, Cello/Guitar Roland Palmer Orchestral Management Stephen Hill for Musicians UK Ltd.,
Directed by Diane Paulus Choreography by Lorin Latarro, Music Supervisor and Arrangements Nadia DiGiallonardo, Orchestrations by Sara Bareilles and The Waitress Band, Set Design Scott Pask, Costume Design by Suttirat Anne Larlarb,
Lighting Design Ken Billington, Sound Designer Jonathan Deans, UK Music Supervisor Katherine Woolley, UK Associate Director Alex Summer-Hughes, UK Associate Choreographer Leanne Pinder, Wigs &Make Up Richard Mawbey, UK Associate Designer Lane Schaksen, Associate Lighting Designer Aaron Porter, UK Associate Sound Designer Rob Bettle, Casting David Grindrod associates, Production Management Simon Gooding and Matt Jones for SGPM Ltd, Advertising Dewynters, Press & PR Raw PR
CSM Sue Berry, Production Stage Manager Ashley Pollit, DSM Jess Cooper, ASM Charlotte Cross, Jake Robson. Head of Wardrobe Hilda Greenwood
Till July 16th
Bittersweet feelgood summer’s arrived with vast Midwest skies. Waitress – Jessie Nelson’s Book and Sara Bareilles’ music fitting over its uber-smart lyrics like slinky gloves – arrives at Theatre Royal Brighton.
Feelgood yes, family show, maybe not. Either way, a must-see. and that’s partly down to Chelsea Halfpenny whose acting is both affecting and true and makes you root for Jenna, the waitress of the title. Halfpenny’s singing is expressive and consummate: she might be originally known for other things but with her second musical here’s a star rising.
Halfpenny’s unhappily married Jenna confides in her two fellow-waitresses: Wendy Mae Brown’s Becky and Evelyn Hoskins’ kooky Dawn. She’s pregnant. She doesn’t want a child now but she’ll keep it. That sums up her life. And she doesn’t love Tamlyn Henderson’s abusive, possessive husband Earl any more.
On the plus side she’s a superb cake and pie maker, valued by her colleagues, grumpily supportive boss Cal (Christopher D Hunt, cut-through baritone) and the oldest diner Michael Starke’s Joe: dressed a bit like Colonel Sanders (Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s costumes make much of mid-west men and women’s bright party dresses vs uniform) he irritatingly always knows what Jenna’s been doing and feeling. And he notes, there’s this pie competition: 20,000 dollars.
That pregnancy changes things in more ways than one. Scarlet Gabriel’s long-experienced Nurse Norma shrugs suspicion and more when David Hunter’s smooth Connecticut-hailing Dr Pomatter, takes over from Jenna’s revered woman doctor; he’s interested in more than a tiny bump, and it’s not just the cake Jenna brings him, reminding of ‘It only takes a taste… a woman like you’ his first affecting song. More like a lump in Jenna’s throat, and his. Second trimesters can be a sexy time. Just how sexy we discover by the consummation of the first half just after their punchy duet ‘Bad Idea’ showing Hunter’s tenor blends ardently with Halfpenny’s.
Directed by Diane Paulus, it’s a long but absorbing show (over two-and-a-half hours with interval) threatening clichés, and whilst not always avoiding them, manages to swerve some expectations and puncture stereotypes just a bit in the second half.
So Becky’s big number after a surprise development ‘I didn’t plan it’ which sounds like more pregnancies but isn’t, quite, both showcases Brown’s searing vocality and establishes her outside the wiser older black woman role which surely has had its century.
Again, Hoskins’ Dawn, kooky, purposefully screechy, is a superb coloratura soubrette: her characterisation’s so tight the sound obscures her words. Her soul-mate – George Crawford’s ‘amateur magician’ and co-creator of Revolutionary re-enactments, Ogie – is a comedic delight of sheer slapstick: there’s a bit of another Crawford in him. His ‘Never getting rid of me’ might seem a threat but their duet finally ‘I love you like a table’ says everything about them. And Crawford’s not alone. Hunter’s headlong slither down the examination couch when discovered in a bit of an unprofessional position is commedia del-arsie. The men in lower registers barrel through the sound design more easily; they’re notably clear too.
Midwest diner, big skies that change, diner windows giving on to vast reaches, a set design with yellow/blue chequered floor and spinning trolleys, seats and lighting sometimes turning into a dreary home with horrid green/yellow sofa or in a blink a surgery: Scott Pask’s set suggests a diner anywhere west anytime from the 1970s, but it’s probably now.
Things haven’t changed much, aspirations are pipedreams. Upstage left Ellen Campbell and her superb, neatly-proportioned Waitress Band underscore this with Bareilles’ punchy, yearning sometimes memorable music; and orchestrations looked after by Nadia DiGiallonardo. It’s an evocative set: big dreams, small lives.
I’m not sure how much sound designer Jonathan Deans is responsible for the volume and clarity, or how much Rob Bettle, his UK associate is: but it needs a good seeing-to. It booms out the clarity of edgy lyrics, and as there’s sometime kooky accents to listen through too, we lose out. Ken Billington’s lighting often beautifully pinpoints exquisite flashbacks – and they really do flash by – in Lorin Latarro’s choreography which falls fleet here. We are though plunged into more than tenebrous gloom when we could warm to a shaft of light. Elsewhere though it’s pinpoint in those moments and ever-changing skies.
It’s a show where all ten named cast (except perhaps Gabriel and Starke’s mainly speaking part) get a solo or more. Henderson (strong high baritone) and Halfpenny’s marital duet is half-Nelsoned and angsty in its forced promises. Halfpenny, Brown and Hoskins get two trios and several reprises: a delight of aspiration, solidarity and consolation: ‘Negative’ and ‘A soft place to land’ are attractive torch-songs of sisterhood.
The cast are all hard-working, a terrific chorus, consummate and adroit: Monique Ashe-Palmer, Amelia Atherton, Aimée Fisher, Nathaniel Landskroner, Ben Morris, Brian Roland. Swings: Dinal Brennan, Charlie Martin (also Dance Captain), Liam McHugh, Olivia Mitchell. Hunt’s also Fight Captain.
There’s several pairings and a steamy moment with three couples giving some relief to Jenna’s emotional, sexual and maternal odyssey. There’s schmalz too, some overly neat pay-offs when the story could have turned darker before the dawn. And that competition: there’s a jump-cut that makes little sense. But Joe springs surprises and the end’s as heartwarming as you could wish.
You can’t help but love this show. A bit of sound adjustment makes the whole world kin. One or two small plot-points would help; just a line or two. With lyrics this good you wonder if Nelson’s book was over-edited. The pies aren’t though. Mine’s an 86% cocoa choc-ice.
But Halfpenny – particularly in her scorching ‘She used to be mine’ – raises us somewhere else: soaring music theatre, an ounce of gold in the throat and stars six inches above it. That’s where she takes us.