The pie-centric “Waitress” finds a hugely talented cast working overtime to salvage half-baked material.
This new musical, with book by Jessie Nelson and music/lyrics by Sara Bareilles, is based on the 2007 film of the same name. The movie was a lightweight, moderately charming effort, but there simply wasn’t much there. Certainly not enough to support a full-blown musical.
Small wonder the touring production now at the Music Hall feels padded and overlong. (Things weren’t helped on opening night by a backstage mishap stopped the show 10 minutes into the first act. A piece of the set reportedly became caught in the curtain and had to be reset, forcing a delay of almost 15 minutes.)
And then there’s Bareilles’ score, which is typical of her compositions. We’re talking clever wordplay and innovative arrangements in fruitless search of a hummable melody.
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Set mostly in a diner in a small Southern burg (I’m guessing Kentucky), the show centers on Jenna (Wichita native Desi Oakley), a waitress and, more importantly, the joint’s pie maker. Jenna pours all her emotions into her baking; the results are spectacularly mouth-watering.
Early on Jenna discovers she is pregnant. Instead of joy she feels dread. She wants to leave her deadbeat bad ol’ boy husband Earl (Nick Bailey), but a baby complicates things.
So, too, does her attraction to her OB-GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart), a socially clumsy transplant from the East Coast.
Hoping to escape, Jenna begins keeping some her of tip money from her hubby. Her plan is to save enough to travel to a regional pie bakeoff with a cash prize big enough to finance a new Earl-free life.
Back at the diner Jenna has a support group in her fellow waitresses. Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) is a wisecracking, brassy gal. Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) is sweet, but an utter ditz. The three of them spend considerable time making life miserable for Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), a grumpy ham hock of a short order cook.
(If this sounds familiar it’s probably because these characters are well-established types first developed in Martin Scorsese’s 1974 film “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and in the subsequent TV sitcom “Alice.” Originality is not “Waitress’s” strong suit.)
Virtually all the major cast members get a showcase number, sometimes with unexpected results. The evening’s biggest showstopper is “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” in which Dawn’s geeky new boyfriend Ogie (Jeremy Morse) delivers a comic extravaganza packed with dweebish body language.
And the single most tuneful song is the country-inflected “Take It From an Old Man,” sung by the diner’s aged owner, Joe (Larry Marshall).
The waitresses deliver beautiful three-part harmony in “A Soft Place to Land,” and even the despicable Earl gets a moment of clarity in the rocking “You Will Still Be Mine.”
Holding it all together is Oakley’s Jenna. Basically she’s playing straight man to a cast full of colorful cutups, but Oakley has the charisma, poise and voice to give the proceedings a yearning emotional core. And she delivers a spectacular vocal workout on the Act II heartbreaker “She Used to Be Mine.”
Technical credits are dominated by Scott Pask’s scenic design, dominated by a huge rendering of a rural highway and telephone poles that, with an assist from Ken Billington’s lighting, perfectly reflects the different times of day and season.
“Waitress” runs through Nov. 19 at the Music Hall. Go to theaterleague.com for ticket information.