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Broadway Across America’s Waitress November 7-12

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Broadway Across America’s Waitress November 7-12Jessie Mueller as Jenna and cast in the original Broadway production of Waitress. Photo by Joan Marcus.
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Writer-director Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film Waitress is beloved for its tone. It fused comic absurdity and archetype to sharply-observed characters the audience rooted for in all their heartbreak and messiness. Unfortunately, the hit Broadway musical adapted by Jessie Nelson (book) and Sara Bareilles (music and lyrics) loses the thread and the touring production in Columbus this week is a ponderous, overlong slog.

The outline of Waitress is familiar to any fans of the source material. Jenna (Desi Oakley) channels her creativity and tries to escape a terrible marriage to Earl (Nick Bailey). into a series of outlandish and delicious sounding pies. Jenna and her best friends Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) and Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) work at a diner owned by aging curmudgeon Joe (Larry Marshall) and run by cranky head cook Cal (Ryan Dunkin). Finding she’s pregnant sets Jenna down the road to claiming happiness for herself, with a dalliance Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart) along the way.

Lenne Klingaman, Desi Oakley, and Charity Angel Dawson in the National Tour of Waitress. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The overwhelming edict for this musical adaptation seems to be that more is always more. The two acts clock in at almost three hours with a fifteen-minute intermission. There isn’t one joke or one emotional moment that doesn’t get underlined and explained until all the blood is drained out of it. The quirky characters are blown up to cartoonish proportions making it hard to see anyone except Jenna as human, to the extent it’s hard to tell if the tonal discrepancies are acting choices or faithful delivery of the script. Most damaging, it’s talky. Fifteen-twenty minute stretches pass without a song and emotional moments don’t warrant turning into music.

When the songs do come, they mostly land with a thud. Bareilles has a gift for big, mid-tempo pop melody but trying to write in other modes feels forced and she’s not a narrative lyricist. More than once I found myself unable to focus on anything else trying to make sense of the disjointed, head-scratching lyrics. Exceptions include some Oakley features like the barn-burning “Everything Changes,” her sweet duet with Fenkart on “You Matter to Me,” and Dawson’s riotous feature “When He Sees Me.”

Desi Oakley is great throughout, keeping an emotional grounding in all the chaos. Lenne Klingaman’s Dawn has lovely chemistry with Jeremy Morse’s Ogie. Dunkin finds some nuance in Cal, the one character who becomes more likable in this version.

Waitress is clearly designed for people who walked out of the movie wanting more time with these characters. That’s the only audience I can recommend it do in any good conscience, and even they would be reminded to temper their expectations.

Waitress runs through November 12 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday, and 1:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, click here.

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