By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Jan 03, 2018 at 6:56 PM

"Sugar. Butter. Flour." That’s what audiences hear as the cherry lattice pie-themed curtain rises on the touring production of the musical "Waitress," which opened at the Marcus Center Tuesday night.

It’s a sweet, oft-repeated refrain that starts as a reverie for Jenna, whose life as a baker and waitress in a small town café is not living up to her dreams. In fact, it’s not even close. Her abusive, redneck husband regularly pockets her tips so he can go out drinking with the boys, and now she’s accidentally pregnant with a baby she has no interest in. So she retreats into the kitchen, to commune with memories of baking with her mother as a little girl and to create something original and wonderful that will bring at least temporary joy to the diner’s patrons.

With sugar, butter and flour, she expresses her deepest emotions in confections with names like "Pursuit of Happiness Pie" and "My Husband’s a Jerk Chicken Pot Pie." As her life becomes more chaotic, her pastries become an outlet for frustration, with the names "White Knuckle Pie" and "Betrayed by my Eggs Pie" gracing the menu board.

But with the support of her two best friends, also waitresses at the diner, Jenna muddles through. Hope for real love presents itself in the town’s awkward but charming new doctor, Jenna’s obstetrician. And hope for escape comes in the form of a baking contest, where the prize money could finance a fresh start. But even in musicals, the course of true love and personal reinvention never runs smooth.

Based on the quirky 2007 hit indie film "Waitress," starring Kerri Russell and Nathan Fillion, the musical version captures a lot of the original’s charm. With music and lyrics by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, tunes with a slight country twang bounce from upbeat numbers to more romantic and nostalgic. Well-placed and subtle choreography by Lorin Latarro matches the rhythm of the diner and is performed seamlessly by the ensemble cast.

Also drawn directly from the film, Jenna presents a stark contrast to other Broadway heroines. A bundle of contradictions, she is strong but fragile, a good girl who sometimes makes bad decisions, often sad but ultimately self-rescuing. A reluctant mother, she eventually summons all the validation she needs from within.

As this un-storybook protagonist, Desi Oakley turns in a nicely balanced performance. Confident with a rolling pin, honest in her unhappiness and electric in her daydreams, Oakley’s voice is strong and straightforward in numbers like "What Baking Can Do" and her gorgeous ballad second act, "She Used to Be Mine."

As her unlikely love interest, the adorably earnest yet inappropriate Dr. Pomatter is a recent transplant to the small town from the East Coast. Played with deceptive ease by Bryan Fenkart, it’s not hard to understand the couple’s mutual attraction – and hard to hate either of them for their moral missteps. Fenkart and Oakley also have the most entertaining number of the night, the sexually charged duet "Bad Idea." Never has a gynecological exam table looked like so much fun, with the delightful "we shouldn’t but we want to" energy ramps up with every verse.

Their romance, the closest to the source material, is by far those most compelling in the show, and it’s captured beautifully. Unfortunately the creative team took a lot of liberties with the rest of the show, either flattening interesting characters (like Joe, the diner’s grouchy owner with a heart of gold), vilifying already unpleasant characters (like the completely unredeemable, good-for-nothing husband Earl) or heightening their eccentricities to ridiculous proportions.

The gawky waitress Dawn and her equally neurotic internet boyfriend get the brunt of the forced comic onslaught. Their nerd-soaked romance begins as an entertaining aside when Dawn (a goofy Lenne Klingman) freaks out about posting her profile on a dating website and imagines all the horrors of bad dates that await in "When He Sees Me." But the subplot really goes off the rails when Ogie (Jeremy Morse) stalks Dawn in the diner with his creepy-not-endearing anthem, "Never Ever Getting Rid of Me." The character is so over-the-top, he feels like he’s in the wrong show.

In another romance played for odd couple comedy, the formidable and full-of-attitude waitress Becky (an uber-talented Charity Angél Dawson) hooks up with her gruff boss, the greasy spoon cook Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin). While Dawson gets some mileage out of one-liners, sassy looks and a killer song about being justifying her decision to be "happy enough" in "I Didn’t Plan This," Dunkin chews the scenery begging for laughs that aren’t earned.

But overall, the show succeeds due to the score and the unorthodox woman at the center of the story who transcends her pie-making world of sugar and spice to make tough, strong choices that will ultimately benefit her daughter as much as herself.