Charity Angel Dawson, Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman in “Waitress” at the National Theatre. (Joan Marcus)
Theater critic

The musical “Waitress” had me at “Hello, how ya been,” one of the typically folksy lyrics in Sara Bareilles’s warm pop score. The 2016 Broadway hit now making a tour stop at the National Theatre is a quirky show — the comedy is kooky and the drama makes you sit awfully still — and maybe you need a real sweet tooth to go for the semi-fairy tale about a pregnant waitress named Jenna trying to work her way out of a stifling marriage. But like the 2007 movie it’s based on, the offbeat “Waitress” has disarming charm and a ton of heart.

You have to be willing to go with the broad strokes from the late writer-director Adrienne Shelly, who played Dawn, the flakiest waitress in the movie’s Southern town pie diner. (Shelly was murdered in Manhattan before the film was widely released.) Jenna’s husband, Earl, is a stick-figure thug. The handsome Dr. Pomatter, Jenna’s gynecologist, is a variant of the harmless stammerers trademarked by Hugh Grant. The diner’s cook is a crank and the owner is a flinty old man with a heart of gold. The girl power trio, rounded out by a sassy survivor named Becky, bands together and finds happiness in the end.

What “Waitress” manages to do is to color vividly inside those lines. The musical pushes out the slapstick (the dizzy Dawn finds an equally nerdy beau in a rhyming, nimbly dancing obsessive named Ogie) while also drawing on Bareilles’s knack for solid hooks and big ballads.

The early tune “Opening Up” perks like a pot of coffee as the diner starts its day. The piano rumble of the lusty “Bad Idea” drives Jenna and Dr. Pomatter up and down the vocal scale, into each other’s arms and all over the examining room. And Jenna’s big number, “She Used to Be Mine,” is a flat-out great sad song, a simple, lyrically acute solo that spreads its melodic wings slowly and hauntingly.


Maiesha McQueen, Desi Oakley and Bryan Fenkart in the national tour of “Waitress.” (Joan Marcus)

As Jenna, whose gift for baking pies is therapy for the anguish in her life, Desi Oakley acts with flat country style and — the best part — sings the Bareilles songs more like a pop artist than a Broadway belter. Director Diane Paulus frequently puts the band in view onstage, where the piano and guitar-driven sextet gets melancholy touches of cello now and then. Crowd-pleasers in the cast include Jeremy Morse as the nearly manic yet somehow sweet Ogie (who cowboy-kicks his way through terrific comic dance steps from choreographer Lorin Latarro), Charity Angél Dawson as the tart Becky and Bryan Fenkart as Dr. Pomatter, whose duets with Oakley range from hotblooded passion to feather-light romance.

The gentle “Waitress” is no sort of musical theater game-changer, though it’s notable as the first on Broadway to feature an all-female creative team (Jessie Nelson wrote the show’s book). It’s a warm hug and a slice of pie, with some laughs on the side and a nice bunch of songs. As Jenna says about one of her recipes, the ingredients really shouldn’t go together. But they do.

Waitress book by Jessie Nelson, music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles. Directed by Diane Paulus. Set, Scott Pask; costumes, Suttirat Anne Larlarb; sound design, Jonathan Deans. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through June 3 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. $48-$203. 800-514-3849 or thenationaldc.org.