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Theater review: In ‘Waitress,’ art of pie becomes a metaphor for life

In the bittersweet, warmly baked Broadway musical “Waitress,” the central character remembers making pie with her late mother.

With a puff of flour that announces the song “What Baking Can Do,” Jenna rolls and crimps dough, extolling the virtues of pie as a metaphor for covering up the things in life that hurt: “I can twist it into sugar, butter covered pieces, never mind what’s underneath it.”

Directed by Diane Paulus, “Waitress,” the 2016 Broadway confection by Jessie Nelson (book) and Sara Bareilles (music and lyrics), arrived at the Fox Theatre on Tuesday night like a warming cloud of sugar, butter and flour, guaranteed to awaken the senses and make you believe in the power of pie.

“Waitress” tweaks the conventions of musical comedy by refusing to tie the story into a perfect love knot of a happy ending. Trapped in an abusive and loveless marriage, Jenna (Christine Dwyer) works in a dead-end job as a waitress in a diner that specializes in pies. She also bakes the pies, christening them with comical names that speak to the story as much as what’s inside the goodies.

After discovering she’s pregnant, she decides to keep the baby, even though she doesn’t love her husband, a self-centered jerk named Earl (Matt DeAngelis). And before you know it, she’s having an affair with her tall, handsome gynecologist Dr. Pomatter (Steven Good). The doctor swore off sugar years ago, but he is seduced by the Mermaid Marshmallow Pie Jenna invented with her mama when she was 9.

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Jenna has a support system and chosen family in the quirky colleagues that populate the diner: Dawn (Jessie Shelton); Becky (Maiesha McQueen); and Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), plus the persnickety old Joe (Richard Kline), who in the end serves as a kind of fairy godfather and patron saint of Jenna’s transformation.

>> RELATED: Former Atlanta teacher Maiesha McQueen plays key role in tour of ‘Waitress’

“Waitress” is a recipe for a good measure of exceptionally delicious comedy, as nerdy Dawn meets wacky Ogie (Jeremy Morse), an amateur magician who only eats white food on Wednesdays and shares Dawn’s love for historical re-enactments. (Turns out her Betsy Ross and his Paul Revere impersonations are an ideal match.) And not to give everything away, but at least one other unexpected romantic entanglement will occur as the oven timer counts off the minutes in this steamy pie shop.

Steven Good (as Dr. Pomatter) and Christine Dwyer (as Jenna) in “Waitress” at the Fox Theatre through Feb. 10. CONTRIBUTED BY PHILICIA ENDELMAN (For the AJC)

Dwyer is a lovely singer and actor playing an ambivalent figure who is more weary than cynical. Good is wonderful, too, especially in his first encounters with Jenna, as he nervously and goofusly tries to negotiate his way around a situation that is sticky, to say the least. Good’s timing is superb. (Rheaume Crenshaw’s very funny Nurse Norma is always there to roll her eyes and remind the lovers of the inappropriate nature of their behavior, too.)

McQueen is hilarious as the proverbial sassy sidekick who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and Dunkin’s Cal is the archetypal wiseacre boss. (If these diner shenanigans feel a little familiar, it’s because the shtick can be traced as far back as the ’70s and ’80s sitcom “Alice,” about three ladies working in a greasy spoon called Mel’s Diner.)

As Ogie, Morse plays a socially awkward asthmatic to rival William Barfee of “Putnam County Spelling Bee” and Elder Cunningham of “Book of Mormon.” In the name of winning Dawn’s heart, he spouts horrible poetry and revels in his balletic and operatic inclinations. Morse’s Ogie is patently ridiculous, and totally brilliant.

As a pop song writer, Bareilles delivers some emotionally affecting material (“She Used to Be Mine”), some whisper-y saccharine filler (“You Matter to Me”), and some bouncy comic lulus (“Club Knocked Up,” “I Love You Like a Table”).

Played by a six-piece contemporary rock band rather than a sprawling orchestra, the score is for the most part refreshing, and while Lorin Latarro’s choreography fails to make much of an impression, this is likely the only show you’ll ever see that uses labor contractions as imagery for a dance number.

One issue: The plot has a way of making complex twists feel as simple as turning on a light switch. One minute Jenna is calling out her doctor as a creep; the next minute, she plants a kiss on him, to complicating effects. And when her baby is born, “Everything Changes,” to quote the song. Indeed, it’s really Jenna that is reborn.

And that, readers, is the power of pie. Life can be crusty, hard and rough-edged. In a heartbeat, it can turn sweet and tender, too.

THEATER REVIEW

“Waitress”

Though Feb. 10. 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6-7; 8 p.m. Feb. 8; 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 9; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Feb. 10. $34.75-$129.75. Broadway in Atlanta, Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org.

Bottom line: Slice of life, with pie and music.

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