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Review: ‘Waitress’ serves up an unexpected slice of soulfulness at Orpheum

November 22, 2017

Despite the deliciously funny sight of three couples simultaneously getting it on, relationships may cost more than they’re worth for Jenna, the title character of “Waitress,” and her female friends in Sara Bareilles’ wryly entertaining Broadway musical.

Pregnant and stuck in a marriage that looks more like a hostage situation than the fairy tale she imagined, actress Desi Oakley helps us to feel Jenna’s heartbreaking dilemma: stay with her abusive husband or strike out on her own as a single mother.

“Waitress,” which landed Tuesday for a holiday stopover at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, was not expected to last long on Broadway, where it opened a year and a half ago to lukewarm reviews. The score lacks the lushness of a classic musical like “The Phantom of the Opera,” the high-minded hip-hop of “Hamilton” or the wit of “The Book of Mormon.”

Instead, singer-songwriter Bareilles — best known for the 2007 hit “Love Song” — has brought a quiet, folksy sound that made this modest chamber musical a surprise hit. The songs may not be particularly catchy, but they build into a feeling that’s greater than the sum of their titles (“Club Knocked Up,” “A Soft Place to Land”).

Adapted by Jessie Nelson from a 2007 film by the late Adrienne Shelly, “Waitress” celebrates a working-class heroine — a baker who expresses her artistic streak through creative pies whose titles (“Betrayed By My Eggs Pie”) announce her moods, hopes and the state of her relationship with slacker husband Earl (Nick Bailey).

They also have a knack for drawing people to her (“It Only Takes a Taste”). After finding out she’s pregnant, Jenna encounters a new gynecologist (Bryan Fenkart), who gets the pie intended for her old doctor. Don’t tell HR, but “Waitress” crosses a lot of lines that would result in disciplinary action.

Director Diane Paulus’ road production is competent and clean, if slowly paced. Oakley delivers a role originated by Tony winner Jessie Mueller with toughness and heart, and a charisma that helps to make the roadshow affecting.

Charity Angél Dawson adds a touch of soulfulness as fellow waitress Becky, who can cut antagonists — burly restaurant manager Cal (Ryan Dunkin) in particular — with just a slow, studied glance but also pours her heart into a solo song, “I Didn’t Plan It.”

The production has great comic foils in a dorky couple played by waitress Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) and her internet date Ogie (Jeremy Morse). The two are totally convincing as oddball Revolutionary War re-enactors who fall in love. Klingaman is a cinch for the bookish, quirky type who’s never been on a date.

Morse is a deft physical comedian who could be kin to Kate McKinnon’s Jeff Sessions on “Saturday Night Live.”

Of course, while their relationship looks great now, some of the things Ogie tells Dawn (“Never Ever Getting Rid of Me”) probably echo what Jenna heard when she was head over heels with a guy who turned out to be a bad dream.

rpreston@startribune.com

612-673-4390

Twitter: @rohanpreston