When you are literally the target demo for Waitress, the Sara Bareilles musical based on Adrienne Shelly's indie film, it's that much harder to pinpoint why you don't like it. Each visit I pay to the show, which is still running on Broadway and comes to Bass Hall via Performing Arts Fort Worth, feels to me as artificial as store-bought pie crust.
One guess is that its heart is buried under layers of syrupy shtick, as broad and as bland as a bad sitcom. Director Diane Paulus, who was behind the similarly cloying Finding Neverland but also the gut-wrenching production of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, has here used the tactic that served her well for the Pippin revival: rely on spectacle to distract.
Now, you won't find any literal hoop-jumping in Waitress; the spectacle here is Bareilles' score (and the real pies used onstage, which are peddled to the audience in the lobby). The remarkable theatrical effort works just as well — better, even — as a solo album from the decorated songstress, blending her soft-rock hooks with clever, soul-searching melodies and a hint of playfulness.
Jessie Mueller was fresh from portraying Carole King in Beautiful when she tied on the diner apron of protagonist Jenna Hunterson, and Bareilles herself took a few spins onstage in the role (Katharine McPhee is next to join the Broadway cast). On tour, Desi Oakley brings a throatier tone to the songs, many of which are Jenna's wistful longings about leaving her abusive husband and winning a lucrative pie-making contest.
These "pie reveries," where Jenna recites ingredients that echo her emotions and help act out her fantasies, add a dollop of genuine whimsy to Jessie Nelson's otherwise contrived book.
This is a world where the waitresses are always wisecracking and the male townies are as dense as their heavy tool boxes, and everyone's Southern accent is so thick you could stir it with a spatula. The diner where Jenna and her two best gal pals — one brassy and sassy (Charity Angél Dawson), one timid and quirky (Lenne Klingaman) — is always full up with regulars, but on closer inspection it's mainly because this show needs bodies to move its scenery, and sometimes sway a little in the background (Lorin Latarro's choreography is very much of the step-touch variety).
Even the Yankee interloper, Dr. Pomatter, is afflicted with too many tics and twitches to render him an actual human. Bryan Fenkart works miracles in making each of the nervous doc's flinches and stutters feel spontaneous, and he projects such a solid nice-guy front that it's easy to forget he's cheating on his wife with Jenna, his new patient who has a newly unwanted pregnancy from her mean lunk of a husband (Hood's Nick Bailey).
If you've read this far, you might wonder, "what's your problem with this show? It all sounds fine." And that's exactly it: It's fine. It's adequate. It'll do. The groan-worthy jokes drown out the gravity, there's a scene-stealing character who pretty much stops the show with his athletic ode to clingy relationships (yes, Jeremy Morse milks it here), and you get to smell pie baking in the lobby. Show after show, the majority of the audience will most likely leave thinking they had a really great time.
But for a woman-centered musical developed by an all-female creative team and scored by the magnificent music of Sara Bareilles, it continues to feel sadly, overwhelming, disappointingly underdone. We got store-bought, and what we deserve is homemade.
Performing Arts Fort Worth's presentation of the national tour of Waitress runs at Bass Hall through June 24.