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‘Waitress’ sets the table for a flawed heroine to find her inner strength

Desi Oakley stars as Jenna in the National Tour of "Waitress" the stage musical. | Joan Marcus

Desi Oakley stars as Jenna in the National Tour of "Waitress" the stage musical. | Joan Marcus

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
She is messy, but she’s kind/She is lonely most of the time
She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie
She is gone, but she used to be mine. — “She Used to Be Mine,” from “Waitress”

Think of it: a slice of freshly baked pie — fresh fruit or cream, crumbly, flaky crust, topped with whipped cream or served alongside ice cream or just all by its heavenly dessert self.

Reality check.

Now think of that pie as a metaphor for the many slices of a life, the ingredients that comprise the essence of a person. All the joy, all the sorrow, all the hopes and dreams — and dreams lost.

And there you have “Waitress,” a film-turned-stage musical about finding the strength to be yourself, to stand proudly and powerfully no matter the obstacles life throws in your way.

‘Waitress’
When: July 3-22
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph
Tickets:
Info: broadwayinchicago.com

Based on the hit 2007 movie starring Keri Russell, “Waitress” — with music and lyrics by Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles and a book by Jessie Nelson — tells the story of the employees and townspeople at a diner in a small Southern town. Jenna (Desi Oakley in the national touring production) has a knack for making pies and putting smiles on the faces of her customers. She works alongside her two closest friends Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) and Dawn (Lenne Klingaman).

But her private life is a different matter. Married to an abusive husband (Nick Bailey, Jenna wants nothing more than to leave him and skip town altogether to pursue a better life, but fate has other plans as she finds herself pregnant and falling in love with her new OB/GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart).

The musical, which boasts an all-female creative team (a first in Broadway history), interweaves the drama that befalls all the characters with topics that are timely and vital for men and women, says director Diane Paulus (a Tony Award winner for “Pippin” and “Finding Neverland”), who describes the story as deeply emotional and powerful.

“I think what’s so beautiful about the musical is that it portrays complicated, messy people,” said Paulus. “Jenna’s lost in a bad marriage. She doesn’t know how to get out. She’s kind of let herself shrink inside and has decided that dream on a shelf is no longer possible. And I think people relate to this. Whether they’re young or old, male or female or whatever, everybody has their moment in life when we think, have I given up? … Jenna’s journey is to break the cycle and to find the courage and the strength and the inner resilience to say, ‘I’ve got to get out of this.’ ”

For Oakley, the chance to play the multifaceted character of Jenna was appealing on many levels.

“She’s just a blast to play because she’s so real,” Oakley said. “The story says a lot about empowering women. She’s not necessarily a bad woman and she’s not necessarily a good woman. And she makes mistakes. She is just like every other woman walking on the planet. To showcase that is truly remarkable. And I don’t think it really has been done before.”

Charity Angel Dawson (from left), Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman star as three friends and diner co-workers in “Waitress.” | Joan Marcus

More and more films are getting stage musical adaptations, most recently “Pretty Woman: The Musical” and the upcoming “Tootsie,” which in September will have its pre-Broadway world premiere in Chicago. Transferring popular films with their hugely popular characters might give directors pause. Paulus saw it as a great challenge.

“You know you want to honor this film, especially something as beautiful as what [the film’s late writer, director and co-star] Adrienne Shelly created. [The musical’s creative team] would watch the movie over and over. It was like the Bible [for us]. But then of course as with any theatrical adaptation there comes a point where you have to depart from all that. Because if you’re just putting the film on stage you’re not really creating the best possible theater experience and the best possible theater dramaturgy and structure.

“The [stage] project really transformed the film,” Paulus continued. “Jessie Nelson took the book and made strategic changes to enhance what Adrienne wrote. So Nelson goes deeper into the friendships of the show’s three men. It’s also a deeper analysis of what is holding our title waitress back.”

For the show’s composer, Paulus said there was always only one choice.

“I suggested Sara Bareilles because I really wanted to go outside the traditional musical theater world, and I wanted someone I felt could capture the gem that was Adrienne’s film,” Paulus said. The two women met for lunch and Paulus soon realized Bareilles was a diehard musical theater fan (“she can sing the first 15 minutes of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ by heart”). Paulus suggested Bareilles watch the film. And after doing so, and firing off a slew of questions to the director, Bareilles delivered the show’s first song, “She Used to Be Mine.”

“It’s the same song you hear in the show today,” Paulus said.

While the show includes dozens of freshly baked pies, and Jenna is shown creating several of them, Oakley admits she is not a skilled baker by any means but offers that “people have different reactions to pie in different cities, but bottom line everyone loves it.” She spent many hours in diners researching her role to make it as authentic as possible.

“People really don’t realize how hard waitresses work, especially diner waitresses,” Oakley said with a chuckle. “I could not do it day in and day out. I hung out at diners and just watched all their interaction with customers. They’re always smiling, no matter how crummy a customer may be. And so friendly, even if they were having a bad day.”

The Cadillac Palace lobby also will feature plenty of pie for purchase courtesy of Eli’s Cheesecake.