The trouble with touring American musicals is … well, where do you start?

First of all they have to be de-skilled from the Broadway originals so that an associate director and a lower-cost cast can deliver them in every size of playhouse from barn to boutique, and with an amplified impact that pleases a mostly-television-watching popcorn-guzzling audience that rarely hauls its own ass to Times Square.

The ladies sitting next to me in the 2,600-seat and oddly-named Au-Rene Theater in Fort Lauderdale were subscription patrons and ‘saw everything’ but knew they were in for an ersatz experience.   The set for Waitress: The Musical filled about one-fifth of the area of the proscenium opening, with little attempt to mask off the underused space.


It reminded me of a dubious package waiting for the disposal squad. And once the curtain went up, not really much better.

Apart from some scenery-store stock renditions of a hick-town diner with chrome stools and a neon sign, there’s little resemblance to the craft and cleverness of the film. I loved the 2007 movie Waitress written by the marvelous Adrienne Shelley who also played Keri Russell’s shift-mate in the diner.   Women supported each other through the hideous treatment of Russell’s Jenna by her loutish boyfriend portrayed with actual menace by Jeremy Sisto, and her romance with the local locum doctor.

In the movie, the doctor was played straight and with gentle wry humour by the handsome Nathan Fillion whereas the musical casts a physical-comedy geek whose gurning is visible from the ninth row of a distant balcony. Jenna’s confidante at work was a splendid role for Cheryl Hines (Larry David’s wife in Curb Your Enthusiasm) but has been transmogrified into a sitcom-sassy, overweight black woman perpetually concerned that one of her breasts hangs lower than another, in what passes – via casual racism and body shaming – for the show’s ‘best’ running gag.

Sarah Bareilles’ music is decent enough, with an onstage country and western band, but I couldn’t now busk you a melody from the show – and because of contractual or copyright issues, the ‘Gonna Make a Pie’ song that Russell hummed or sang to comfort herself through dark situations is absent from the score.

The customers and Janna’s neighbours are played by an ensemble whose budget headcount mean they have to double and treble too many parts, often lacking delineation of the characters, and making the show feel unnecessarily breathless. Of course everyone sings and dances adequately, but there’s never a moment when you are actually breathless at the excellence of an interpretation.

Instead, I found myself doing the arithmetic of a $200,000 a night box office take, minus salaries and lodging for the cast, and figuring this isn’t an artistic endeavour, it’s a factory-produced moneymaker.

Like the pie in a cheap diner.