A Sweet Musical About Pies

In 'Waitress,' now at the Aronoff Center, Desi Oakley gets her just desserts in a story of self-discovery

click to enlarge Desi Oakley stars as Jenna in "Waitress." - PHOTO: JOAN MARCUS
PHOTO: Joan Marcus
Desi Oakley stars as Jenna in "Waitress."

pie recipe can seem simple. Jenna, the beleaguered pie-maker at the center of Waitress, lists the essential ingredients in the first song of the touring Broadway show, at the Aronoff Center for the Arts now through Jan. 21: “Sugar. Butter. Flour.” 

Of course there’s more to a winning pie, just as there are many more elements necessary for a successful musical. Pop composer and Grammy winner Sara Bareilles had the recipe for the songs to fill out Jenna’s story, drawn from a film starring Keri Russell, best known today as Elizabeth Jennings, a KGB agent leading a double-life in FX’s The Americans

The 2007 independent film was written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, who is seen in the film in a supporting role. (The filmmaker was tragically murdered in November 2006.) 

Waitress became a surprise 2016 hit on Broadway with a script, adapted by Jessie Nelson, about a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. The show featured a winning performance by Jessie Mueller (who had already won a Tony for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) as Jenna. Bareilles performed the role several times; on Broadway today, Betsy Wolfe, a 2004 grad of University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, is the lead. 

When it came time to cast a touring production, it was essential to find the right performer to play Jenna, who escapes her difficult reality through baking. Desi Oakley landed the part.

“It’s an honor to follow in the footsteps of those incredible, dynamic performers,” she says. “I don’t tend to listen to cast recordings. I learned the music for Waitress from the page, not from hearing the cast recording. Nadia (DiGiallonardo, the show’s music supervisor and arranger) and Sara (Bareilles) worked with me from the beginning to pioneer it for myself.” 

“I’m a singer-songwriter myself,” Oakley continues, “so that’s my voice. They stressed a balance of trust with this cast, blending the original Broadway production with our own thing for the tour. We were encouraged to bring our own ideas and artistry.”

Bareilles rose to attention with her 2007 hit single, “Love Song.” Subsequently, she has been often compared to artists such as Regina Spektor, Fiona Apple and Billy Joel — singers who accompany themselves on piano. Working with her has been a singular treat for Oakley. 

“Her score for Waitress is brilliant,” she says. “It’s no wonder she wrote a musical. She is a storyteller — all of her songs are stories with character and tone. Her music is perfect for performing. As an actress, I can go seamlessly from scene to song. Her lyrics are so real, and her deep melodies are so sweet.”

An intriguing aspect of Waitress is the fact that its creative team is female. Beyond Bareilles and DiGiallonardo, there is director Diane Paulus, bookwriter Nelson, costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb and choreographer Lorin Latarro. Oakley says that was happenstance. 

“Everybody was chosen for the job, just identifying the right person,” she says. “When they all came together for the first time it was like, ‘Whoa, we’re all women!’ No one said, ‘Let’s make it an all-woman team.’ They were simply the right people for the job.”

Oakley had a singular challenge in playing the pie-loving waitress Jenna: She had never baked a pie. But her mom stepped up to provide some help. She travelled to New York City and told her daughter, “I think it’s important that I teach you how to make a pie with your grandmother’s recipe,” Oakley says. “She taught me how, and I have the photos to prove it — with sugar, butter and flour.” 

So she knows how, even if she’s not actually doing it during the play. “Onstage, we’re using real flour, sugar and dough — all the real ingredients, for sure. But there’s not enough time to actually bake anything.” 

The character Jenna’s creations reflect her attitudes and feelings. Oakley’s favorite is “The Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness Pie.” 

“It’s probably Jenna’s most carefully constructed pie, based on how she’s feeling at that moment,” she says. “It’s also the furthest pie from her reality.” 

Oakley sensuously repeats the recipe of that patriotic pie: “Meld warm Golden Delicious apples with free-flowing brown sugar, add cinnamon and allspice, fold in cocoa chiffon until they merge perfectly, top with peaks of Chantilly cream.” 

She warns those planning to attend Waitress: “This show will make you crave pie.” Indeed, warm slices, baked in the lobby, are available during intermission.

Oakley has come to know Jenna well. “She is an expert at burying her problems in her pies and not facing her harsh reality,” she says. “She continues to move forward and bus tables and bake pies. But everyone in her life starts to open her eyes to the reality around her. I admire her strength. Her story breaks my heart every night.”

It’s not Oakley’s personal story, however. 

“She believes she’s not worthy of something more, while I have dreamt of this (theater) career since I was 14,” she says. “I’ve fought for my dreams. Jenna doesn’t even realize what’s possible. Her story and the people around her have shaped me.”

Oakley feels a responsibility to tell Jenna’s story. She’s been in shows like Wicked and Evita, but she’s never played the “girl next door” type. 

“This role is unlike any I’ve played before,” she says. “Jenna is more tangible to an audience than a girl with green skin or a woman who ran a country. That accessibility excites me and fuels me to tell her story. This really hits home for a lot of people.”

Waitress, according to Oakley, is not just a show for women. “It’s the story of the people in a woman’s life. This show is a universal story of self-discovery and personal awakening. Men are standing up at the end of the show, too.”

Waitress, presented by Broadway in Cincinnati, continues at the Aronoff Center through Jan. 21. More info: cincinnatiarts.org.

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