Jenna, the title figure and skilled pie-maker in “Waitress,’’ likes to confer titles on her tasty comestibles that reflect what she is feeling at any given moment.
So, for instance, she christens one creation the “my-husband’s-a-jerk-chicken-pot-pie,’’ and dubs another the “I-want-to-play-doctor-with-my-gynecologist-pie.’’ Then there are the “almost-makes-you-believe-again-pie’’ and the “pursuit-of-happiness-pie.’’
In that spirit, let’s call “Waitress’’ the trying-way-too-hard-musical.
It’s not that there aren’t moments that will move you or amuse you in this tale of a diner waitress who hopes to escape her lousy marriage by winning the $20,000 prize in a pie-baking contest. There are.
But those moments are enfolded within layers of manipulative schmaltz, insistently broad comedy, and one-dimensional characterizations. In “Waitress’’ — a stage adaptation of Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film that features music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, a book by Jessie Nelson, and direction by Diane Paulus — subtlety is the missing ingredient.
Well, that and Jessie Mueller. When Mueller played Jenna in the 2015 premiere of “Waitress’’ at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, her sheer star power helped to conceal its shortcomings. (Mueller also took on that role when the show moved to Broadway the following year, earning a Tony nomination.) But in the touring production that has arrived at the Boston Opera House with Desi Oakley as Jenna, the show’s flaws are starkly apparent.
While a capable actress and singer, Oakley lacks Mueller’s intangible gift for elevating a production by delivering a steady current of electricity to any scene she’s in. In fairness, there are few in Mueller’s league, and Oakley does rise impressively to the challenge of Jenna’s stirring, soul-baring Act 2 solo, “She Used to Be Mine.’’ The emotional transparency and unflinching honesty Oakley brings to that song, in which Jenna mourns the sense of self she lost along the way (“It’s not simple to say/ Most days I don’t recognize me’’), gives a taste of what “Waitress’’ might have been.
Jenna feels trapped in her abusive marriage to a grade-A creep named Earl (Nick Bailey), a situation significantly worsened when she learns she is pregnant by him. The grim scenes with Earl coexist uneasily with the goofy, almost cartoonish vignettes in the diner, where Jenna has a support system in the form of her fellow waitresses, the loudly assertive Becky (Charity Angel Dawson, very good) and the nerdy Dawn (Lenne Klingaman, too over-the-top). The diner’s manager, Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), is a gruff but good-hearted figure, and the diner’s owner, Joe (Larry Marshall), takes a benevolent interest in Jenna. (He might as well wear a sign that reads “Deus ex machina.’’)
The figure who further complicates Jenna’s life is Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart), her new gynecologist. He’s married and geeky — when she tells him she is pregnant, he attempts to high-five her — but she is attracted to him, and before long the two have begun an affair. (The good doctor seems untroubled by either his marriage vows or the canons of medical ethics prohibiting doctor-patient relationships.) Oakley and Fenkart team up for a poignant duet on “You Matter to Me’’ in Act 2.
“Waitress’’ deserves credit for the seriousness with which it takes the act of baking, making clear that in Jenna’s hands, it is an art form, a means of self-expression, and an outlet toward freedom. Director Paulus brings her craftsmanship and some of her trademark sizzle to the musical, delivering scenes to savor, even in passing, such as the quite funny sight of three couples canoodling simultaneously. (Disclosure: She directed my son Matt’s opera, “Crossing,’’ at the ART and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.)
Although “Waitress’’ is the product of an all-female creative team, including choreographer Lorin Latarro, certain aspects land awkwardly in our current #MeToo moment, including not just the doctor-patient affair but also the romance between Dawn and the gratingly goofy Ogie (Jeremy Morse), whom the show seems to find adorable. Ogie shows up at the diner after he and Dawn have had a very brief blind date, even though she told him she didn’t want to see him again, and makes this stalker-ish proclamation in song: “You’re never ever ever getting rid of me.’’ Um . . .
Ogie ultimately proves to be harmless. But, like “Waitress,’’ he’s too darned eager to please.
Book by Jessie Nelson. Music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles. Choreography by Lorin Latarro. Directed by Diane Paulus. Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Boston Opera House. through March 4. Tickets from $44, 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.comDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin