By Tonya Abeln
PNC Broadway in Louisville experienced record-breaking season ticket sales upon the reveal of their 2017-2018 season, based in part by the announcement that the national tour of “Hamilton” would make its debut in the Derby City. That electrifying announcement served merely as punctuation to the already pleasing and palatable lineup that would fill Whitney Hall at The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts in the coming year. With the perfect balance of classic and contemporary, the season delivered something of interest, intrigue or sweet familiarity to even the most casual theater-goer: “Les Miserables,” “Chicago,” “Rent”—all meaty and meaningful shows that are satisfying to the senses time and again.
And then there was a little something new on the menu that appealed to my sweet tooth and made me yearn to skip straight to dessert—a whimsical and sentimental musical called “Waitress” that had made its Broadway debut in April 2016. My appetite for the show developed accidentally when I happened upon its signature song “She Used to Be Mine.” “She’s imperfect, but she tries. She is good, but she lies. She is hard on herself. She is broken and won’t ask for help.” I was deeply moved by the soaring melodies and immensely touched by the lyrics. Something about the honest musical storytelling resonated with me in that moment and I pulled over to the side of the road instantly to identify what I had just heard so that I could binge-listen for the next several weeks and subsequently force feed it to everyone I knew.
I was fully addicted to every note by the time I discovered that it had been written by Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles for the stage adaptation of “Waitress.” Having seen the unremarkable movie during its theater run in 2007, I only recalled that the plot centered around a woman with a gift for baking pies and was skeptical of how that would translate to the stage (and how on earth it would justify my new musical anthem).
Prior to seeing “Waitress” for the first time in New York at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, I had the opportunity to meet with Diane Paulus for a private interview. The Tony award-winning director of the show supplemented my memory by reminding me that “Waitress” is a story that urges the audience to pursue their dreams. “When you’ve given up, when you feel like maybe you don’t deserve something better,” she explained, “it’s never too late to pull that dream off a shelf and know that you matter in the world.”
“What I love about ‘Waitress,’ and why I think the audience will respond to it, is that it is not about perfection,” Paulus continued. “It’s about real characters who are flawed. People often see the show and say, ‘Gasp! That’s my friend or my sister.’ You are able to empathize with the struggles the characters face.”
Paulus went on to explain that the element of whimsy is what initially made “Waitress” a desirable adaptation for stage, the tone perfectly cemented by the incredibly contagious score by Bareilles. “The lead character, Jenna, is an extraordinary pie baker and she has an incredible fantasy life that she expresses through her pies, but her journey is in figuring out how to direct those dreams in her real life.”
Warmed by Paulus’ prediction, I settled in, captivated from the first syncopated sounds of, “Sugar, Butter, Flour.” Ingredients floated as if in a dream as Jenna created the first of her inventive pies using unusual titles inspired by her life. If I were baking my own, it surely would have been “raw-emotional-overload pie.” Ingredients: a dash of post-partum and a heaping helping of double white wine (variety not specific). What I’m trying to say is…I cried…a lot.
Set in the working-class American South, I identified with the struggle of dreaming beyond a small town. As a new mom, I connected with the lead character when she questions her maternal capacity. Most of all, I rejoiced in the empowering message of female friendships and the family we find and create in unexpected places. By the end of the show, as the intensity and comedy of “Contraction Ballet” opened up to the sweeping number, “Everything Changes” (“Today’s a day like any other, but I am changed, I am a mother…”) I let an audible sob escape and was politely comforted by the stranger to my left.
You don’t have to take my weepy word for it. You can experience the perfectly irresistible concoction for yourself when “Waitress” plays for a limited one-week engagement in Louisville June 26 through July 1 (individual tickets go on sale December 7 at kentuckycenter.org).
I had the occasion to speak to Desi Oakley by phone as she assumed the lead role of Jenna when the national tour kicked off in October. “From the first time I saw ‘Waitress,’ I knew I wanted to help tell this remarkable story,” she said of her excitement to share the musical with new audiences across the country. “What I love about the show is that each character has their own journey. It’s an incredible story about connection so each individual narrative supports the other. Even though Jenna may be the lead, the world doesn’t revolve around only one human—everyone has a story to tell.”
When pressed on her musical interpretation of my beloved “She Used to Be Mine,” she responded in good nature that she is always careful not to listen to original cast recordings so as not to mimic their choices. “Sara Bareilles is so incredibly hands-on with this show and has been like a big sister and mentor to me. She has fueled my performance and given me the freedom to artistically go where I want to go.” Primarily a pop singer in her own right, Oakley says she identifies with this music more than her previous show credits, which include “Wicked,” “Les Miserables,” “Evita” and “Annie.”
While details for the Louisville casting of Jenna’s stage daughter, Lulu, have not yet been revealed, the tour has seen great success in casting a child in the city in which they are performing. According to Oakley, “It’s been very special to connect with a new child actor in each city and make sure they feel safe and comfortable.” The ideal young actress for the part is approximately five-years-old and of a specific size since she is to be passed around from person to person in the closing scene.
Oakley assures that audiences are in for a treat with this touring cast, revealing, “Every single one of my castmates is a literal dream. My waitress gal pals are exquisite and a blast to be with on stage. Our connection is real and alive onstage and off. It is incredible to feel supported by them every day.”
“Waitress,” Oakley concludes, “is a universal story of love, self-acceptance and finding happiness. Even if you don’t typically like musical theatre, this is a story you will find yourself in and you’ll go home humming a tune. You will laugh, you will cry—I know the cast is doing a lot of both together, too. It will be a night you’ll never forget.”
I’m definitely up for a second helping of that.