Maiesha McQueen, Jimmy Ray Bennett, Desi Oakley and Gizel Jimenez in “Waitress” at Ogunquit Playhouse. Photo by Nile Scott Studios

With warm hand pies for sale in the lobby and display cases full of full-size pies at each side of the stage, it’s not too much of a challenge to figure out a central element of “Waitress,” the season-opening show at the Ogunquit Playhouse.

Based on a 2007 film written by Adrienne Shelly, the musical version of “Waitress” invites us to visit with a collection of likeable but romantically unfulfilled characters who work in or hang around Joe’s Pie Diner, a down-home place situated somewhere in the South. A repeated refrain of “sugar, butter, flour” frames broader, musically raised metaphorical questions about “What’s Inside” and “What Baking Can Do,” not to mention the suggestiveness of “It Only Takes a Taste” when applied to a burgeoning affair.

Indeed, there are extramarital affairs aplenty as three of the main characters struggle with feelings of connubial hopelessness in the musical’s book, written by Jessie Nelson. Even with all that, this Abbey O’Brien-directed show, with choreography by Cost n’ Mayor, ultimately provides a tasty, if slightly predictable, slice of romantic comedy as the characters spiritedly hope for something better.

Major credit for the show’s success goes to the music by Sara Bareilles, performed by an onstage, guitar-centered band (led by Leigh Delano). With uniformly good singers in the cast, the country-flavored pop songs fit both the romantic and comic themes presented in both the moving and manic moments.

Desi Oakley takes the lead role of Jenna, a pie-making and pie-contest-aspiring sweetheart who’s married to a macho lout. As the show opens, she discovers that she’s pregnant. A visit to an attractive young, but married, gynecologist, played by Ben Jacoby, leads to an unexpected romance. Oakley and Jacoby have several fine musical moments including the playful “It Only Takes a Taste” and the adoring “You Matter to Me.” Oakley reveals a strong soprano on “What Baking Can Do” and in the soaring self-reflection of “She Used to Be Mine.”

Jenna’s waitress pals, the ditsy Dawn (Gizel Jiménez) and the brassy Becky (Maiesha McQueen), pursue individual romances while asserting sisterly solidarity on such tunes as “The Negative” and “A Soft Place to Land.” McQueen’s powerful solo on “I Didn’t Plan It” gets the second act of the roughly two-and-a half-hour show off to a rocking start.

Kennedy Kanagawa, as Dawn’s suitor Ogie, tries hard to steal the show with wacky moves on offbeat numbers like “I Love You Like a Table” and “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.” Cleavant Derricks offers avuncular wisdom on “Take It From an Old Man.” Renée Jackson is a sassy nurse, and Jimmy Ray Bennett and Matt DeAngelis round out the main cast as not-always-good ol’ boys.

Catchy tunes and spirited performances win the day over familiar situations and themes to make for a pleasing return to action at the Ogunquit Playhouse.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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