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‘Waitress’ delivers the goods to Wharton Center

National Broadway musical tour featuring world-class talent comes to East Lansing


You don’t need to know how to bake a pie in order to relate to the characters of “Waitress.” But that didn’t stop lead actress Desi Oakley’s mother from flying out to New York City, so she could teach her daughter the All-American craft.

It made perfect sense, after all, Oakley portrays Jenna, a waitress who believes her last shot at happiness is the cash prize from a pie-baking contest.

“Waitress,” a musical based on the 2007 cult classic film of the same name, has sprouted from Broadway and grown into a national tour. It begins a six-night residency at the Wharton Center Tuesday.

Director Diane Paulus (“Finding Neverland”) is backed by an all-female creative team, including screenwriter Jessie Nelson (“I Am Sam”) and composer Sara Bareilles (“Brave.”) Bareilles’ music is said to steal the show, her Grammy and Tony Award nominated score turns the emotions of “Waitress” into a tangible force that can truly move through an audience.

“Waitress” tells the story of Jenna, a waitress trapped in a loveless marriage who sees the cash prize from a pie-baking contest, as a last-chance opportunity.

The stakes of Jenna’s miserable state of affairs are heightened when it’s revealed she is pregnant, the accidental result of a drunken night. Earl, her abusive husband, constantly criticizes Jenna, as she dreams of a better life.

These dim prospects are simply the reality of many fresh-out-of-high-school Midwesterners, and for those that can relate, the story is an inspiration.

“I get message after message from people that say this story impacted them in a way they were not expecting,” Oakley said. “Particularly the role of Jenna, spoke to them in ways that really hit home.”

The art of taking a musical on the road can prove difficult, and many productions wind up marred with technical difficulties and performer burnout. But Oakley believes “Waitress” has managed to escape that pitfall.

“Keeping a fresh performance eight shows a week is always an actor’s challenge,” Oakley said. “But that’s the beauty of it.”

Oakley has grown quickly as an actress, performing smaller Broadway roles in “Les Misérables” and “Wicked.” Now she’s performing what could prove to be her breakout role.

“My character has dreams and desires, but sometimes she feels like she’s stuck and doesn’t have the confidence to pursue her dreams,” Oakley said. “She doesn’t know if she’s good enough, or if it’s too late for her. “Waitress” has a tragic background that is carried onto the stage each night by Oakley and her fellow cast members.

The original film’s director and writer Adrienne Shelley died before “Waitress” made its initial theatrical run and was never able to enjoy her independent film’s runaway success.

Her death became the focus of heated media attention in 2006. First ruled a suicide, further police investigation spurred by the protest of her husband revealed it to be murder. Shelley’s attacker had merely rearranged the crime scene, and was caught with forensic evidence.

Oakley said she is proud of the musical and considers it a loving tribute to Shelley.

“I hope she would be proud too. We speak of her name often and we list that name high,” Oakley said. “We are constantly celebrating the gift she gave us that is this story.”

“Waitress” at Wharton Center for Performing Arts Jan. 23-25 at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 26 at 8 p.m. Jan. 27 at 2 and 8 p.m. Jan. 28 at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $43


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