The thing about Waitress is that it tries really hard. Really hard. The musical is based on the movie of the same name, with a book by Jessie Nelson and music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles. The movie was a candy-colored, earnest little outing starring a winsome Keri Russell that tells the story of a small-town gal named Jenna who works at Joe’s Pie Diner and who dreams about a life away from her abusive husband, where she can make pies and live her best life.
The musical, stopping this week at the Hobby Center, hews closely to that earnestness, with an equally winning Christine Dwyer as Jenna. The problem is, there isn’t a lot of there there, despite the darker themes at the edge of the bright, bouncy rom-com action.
Jenna is married to Earl, a one-dimensional, central-casting take on the abusive husband (played here by Dwyer’s real-life husband, Matt DeAngelis, who, again, is trying really hard to make something out of what he’s given). She hasn’t loved him for years, but one night, she gets drunk, they have sex, and she gets pregnant. She doesn’t want the baby, despite the encouragement from her fellow diner waitresses Becky (a soulful Tatiana Lofton) and Dawn (a peppy Jessie Shelton) that she’ll come to love it. Jenna and her married gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (Steven Good), wind up falling for each other, a courtship punctuated by any number of her creative pies. The owner of the diner, Joe, a sweetly curmudgeonly Richard Kline, has a sweet spot for Jenna himself, gently—and later a bit less so—trying to encourage her to leave her husband and start fresh.
This musical tries so very hard to be likable—and it mostly is, the way you like meringue; it’s sweet and a great accent, but you wouldn’t eat a whole vat of it in a sitting. The audience Tuesday night certainly loved it, jumping to their feet the second the ensemble came on stage for their curtain calls, having previously cheered and “awwwed” at numbers throughout the show. It’s hard not to be affected in those moments, but you might find yourself struggling to recall them later.
Barielles’ music and lyrics are exactly what you’d expect from the six-time Grammy winner known for her piano-driven pop and distinctly female point of view. When it comes to writing about the mundanity of Jenna’s life, Bareilles is the natural go-to, given her intelligent compositions and keen powers of observation. In Waitress, though, so many of her songs not only sound alike, but blend so much into each other it might have been a better idea to have the whole show sung through. “Opening Up,” the opening production number that serves to set the scene, might be the exception, with its up-tempo beat taking us through the mechanics of the diner’s world. But a lot of the rest of the songs feel like one long rendition of the same piece, as opposed to individual narratives.
And, aside from Jenna, the narratives of the other characters are less than three-dimensional. Fellow waitresses Becky and Dawn have their own troubles. Dawn’s never been in love and Becky has an invalid husband, and she’s drawn into an affair. And while Lofton gives a belting rendition of “I Didn’t Plan It,” her repudiation of Jenna’s repudiation, the character—like most of the others—does way more telling of her life and sorrows, rather than showing. Dawn is drawn as a quirky ditz, who has a five-minute date with Ogie (a scene stealing Jeremy Morse). She’s hesitant about whether she wants more, but he plants himself at that diner and refuses to leave until she loves him. In the real world, we’d call this stalking and would guard against it. In Waitress, Ogie sings “Never Getting Rid of Me,” complete with vaudevillian dance moves, and the house goes wild. It’s actually too bad that Ogie isn’t more developed, both because Morse is simply superb in his role and also because his coupling with Dawn winds up being one of the most stable relationships in the show.
As Jenna, Dwyer is charming and vulnerable and possessed of a gorgeous voice, capable of soaring whimsy and soul-touching sadness. She is the emotional hub of this show, and vastly capable of carrying the whole thing—you just wish all the characters around her had similar heft.
Scott Pask’s sets swan in and out against a backdrop of a long, lonely road, empty save for telephone poles, designed to give a sense of small-town isolation. But aside from the crappy plaid couch that anchors Jenna and Earl’s house, the feeling is less claustrophobic than cheerful. Even the diner’s ladies’ room is cute. Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s costumes sit along the perky side of the color wheel, with bright baby blue dresses for the three waitresses and various plaids at various times for the various men who inhabit this mostly female world.
Ultimately, Waitress is a show with a big heart, and it will be a crowd pleaser for sure, with a breezy style and themes of how the choices we make affect our presents and our futures, and how, in learning to be vulnerable, we often achieve strength we didn’t know we had. But none of this remedies the fact that this musical remains the kind of confection you eat with relish, only to find later that you can’t remember the taste.
Thru Feb. 3. Tickets from $35. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. 800-952-6560. More info and tickets at houston.broadway.com.