“Waitress” is a smallish story with some big themes — breaking free and rebuilding a life.
The production, now playing the Broward Center for the Performing Arts for a two-week run, admirably resists the urge to underscore all of that with a Broadway-ma-tized retelling of the hit 2007 indie film of the same name. It’s a tricky thing for “Waitress” to pull off, to keep the quirky humor of the movie as well as its small burg rhythms and yet deliver a musical-comedy level entertainment.
“Waitress” does that, but not in that forced and strident way so many musicals attempt, mistaking earnestness with heavy-handedness. Oh sure, there are some small concessions. The humor is played broad, which might be a good thing in expansive spaces such as performing arts centers now that the show is on the road. It might well have been ticked down a few notches in the far more intimate Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York City, where “Waitress” has been playing since 2016. By the way, “Waitress” was nominated for four Tony Awards, but unfortunately was up against the juggernaut “Hamilton.” Even singer-composer Sara Bareilles’ folksy and bluesy score failed to bring home any hardware, despite striking a genuine tone and being a snug fit with the narrative.
Tracking close to the movie, the musical adaptation centers on Jenna (Desi Oakley), a waitress at a small-town diner who bakes a variety of popular pies with a wide range of ingredients and flavor profiles (like combining blueberries and bacon). Married to abusive loser Earl (Nick Bailey), Jenna is already dreaming of leaving her life behind when she discovers, to her horror, that she is pregnant. Her co-workers — the nerdy Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) and the saucy Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) — offer Jenna the emotional support she doesn’t get at home.
Jenna is trapped in a nowhere town, in a going-nowhere job and a no-way marriage, with a baby on the way. Her only hope is to win a pie-baking contest and use the money to escape and make a new home for her and her child. She gets tripped up when she meets her gynecologist, a herky-jerky-quirky Dr. Pomatter (Brian Fenkart), and enters into a torrid affair. With motherhood on the horizon and infidelity in front of her, Jenna searches for the strength and courage to remake her life.
So you can see how, on paper, this could all get tiresome rather quickly, no matter over two and half hours with a 15-minute intermission. But “Waitress” holds you fast. Maybe it’s because so many of the lead characters are so believably flawed. Oh, who are we kidding? Some of them are such hot messes, even Dr. Phil would hit the face-palm position and stay there. Maybe its the cast who pepper the show’s ever-so-slightly pedestrian jokes with some salty moments that recall the movie’s dark humor. It might be that the actors sing Bareilles’ 17 or so songs soulfully and convincingly.
Or maybe, just maybe, it takes all these ingredients to make something tasty.
“Waitress” plays April 11-22 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale, Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $35-$125 ($160 for Club Level seats). To order, call 462-0222 or go to BrowardCenter.org.