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Charity Angel Dawson, left, Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman star in the national tour of Waitress, currently at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood.
Charity Angel Dawson, left, Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman star in the national tour of Waitress, currently at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood.
Joan Marcus

Waitress the Musical Serves Up Empowerment and Pie at the Pantages

Everyone has a favorite flavor when it comes to pie. Some like fruit-based, like apple; others prefer cream-based. But fans of Waitress might prefer "Berry the Bullshit pie" or "Sweet Victory pie." All will definitely want to see the 2007 movie-turned–Tony-nominated musical version the film, which has come to Los Angeles, premiering at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood on Friday, Aug. 3.

Waitress tells the story of a woman in a small Southern town trapped in a life she doesn't want: married to an abusive husband and working as, yes, a waitress. Her only outlet is baking, and she's an expert at making pies at the diner where she works. One day, her life gets turned upside down (much like her "Pineapple Upside Down pie") when she learns she is unexpectedly pregnant with a child she doesn't want.

One might think this type of story has been told countless times before. However, when one sees how the story ends and learns about the historic amount of female energy behind it, it becomes less a cliché and more an example of female empowerment. Actress Adrienne Shelly, known for roles in independent films such as The Unbelievable Truth and Trust, wrote, directed and co-starred in the film alongside lead Keri Russell. It's a rarity in the film industry for a female to have so much creative control of a project, but Shelly's input ensured that this story about a woman also was brought to life by a woman.

Tragically, Shelly didn't get to see the fruits of her labor: Less than three months before the film's debut at the Sundance Film Festival, Shelly was violently murdered in her home. After her death, her husband established the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, a nonprofit that awards scholarships, funds and grants through academic and filmmaking institutions including Women in Film. Additionally, the Women Film Critics Circle began awarding the Adrienne Shelly award to the film that "most passionately opposes violence against women."

Ryan G. Dunkin, left, and the cast of Waitress.
Ryan G. Dunkin, left, and the cast of Waitress.
Joan Marcus

A little less than a decade later, two women joined forces to become the first all-female team to create a Broadway musical. Based on Shelly's film, pop star Sara Bareilles wrote the music and lyrics and writer-director Jessie Nelson (I Am Sam, Stepmom, The Story of Us) wrote the book for Waitress the musical. "I really think we made a show that has so much heart and so much soul. It's a show about messy people. It's really funny. It's really moving and emotional," Bareilles says. "We really made a well-rounded show, I think, and it's the thing I've made in my life that I'm the most proud of. More than anything, I feel like this show has a real potential to move people and I really believe in it."

While Bareilles may have written many hits for the radio, such as "Brave" and "Love Song," this was her first time writing the music for a Broadway show. "[Writing this show] was so fucking hard," she says. "I think the intensity of the collaboration and having each song have to make sense in a lot of different ways and on a lot of different fronts [was difficult]. So you have to make sense with the book writer, with the choreographer, with of course the director, but from a storytelling perspective, the songs have a lot of boxes to tick. And so there were a lot of challenges to be met there." Clearly, Bareilles' hard work paid off: She was nominated for Best Original Score at the Tonys (the show received three other nominations, including Best Musical) as well as for Best Musical Theater Album at the Grammys.

The fact that Waitress, which debuted on Broadway in 2016, has finally arrived in Los Angeles is a huge milestone for Bareilles, who has strong ties to L.A.  "It feels like it’s taken 10 million years to get here. I've been so excited for this particular stop on the tour because I lived here for 15 years. I'm a UCLA Bruin," she says. "I love Los Angeles and the audiences in Los Angeles have always been so loving and so supportive for me and the work that I've done in the past and … I'm so proud to share the work of this incredible cast and crew, too, so it's awesome."

Lenne Klingaman, left, Desi Oakley and Charity Angel Dawson in the national tour of Waitress
Lenne Klingaman, left, Desi Oakley and Charity Angel Dawson in the national tour of Waitress
Joan Marcus

Bareilles herself has played the lead role of Jenna on Broadway (as have Katharine McPhee and Jessie Mueller). Desi Oakley plays her in Los Angeles. "It's literally a dream come true [working with Sara Bareilles]," Oakley says. "I was a fan of hers since forever … and I think that she's the literal perfect person to write the score because while the movie didn't have music, it's still kind of sarcastic [and] a little tongue-in-cheek, which is absolutely all of Sara's music. She has a funny, witty joke, a funny, witty moment, but it's relatable. She is so down to earth as a person and as an artist, so it's just the perfect pairing." Oakley, who was in the national tour of Evita that stopped at the Pantages a few years back, has only praise for L.A. audiences. "It's an awesome, awesome privilege to tell a story to an L.A. audience because it's a smart theater town, so the jokes land and the audiences are right with us," she says.

Indeed, this seemed to be the case opening night. The audience was extremely engaged, laughing out loud at the quick one-liners as well as the jokes in Bareilles' lyrics. They gasped at the abuse of Jenna's husband, Earl, and cheered for Jenna's redemption at the end. Although Oakley got thunderous applause for her pitch-perfect rendition of the show's signature song, "She Used to Be Mine," her most emotional performance came during her final number, "Everything Changes," which is Jenna's ode to how her newborn baby saved her life.

Another standout in the show was Jeremy Morse, who played Ogie. Morse's comedic timing was impeccable; the audience was left in stitches almost every time he was onstage.

Waitress creators Sara Bareilles, left, and Jessie Nelson flank star Desi Oakley on opening night.EXPAND
Waitress creators Sara Bareilles, left, and Jessie Nelson flank star Desi Oakley on opening night.
Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock

Nevertheless, the show was definitely all about the ladies: three strong waitresses trying to navigate sexism, love and work. It was the end of the show that sent the strongest message to females, when Jenna takes control of her own life and decides to focus on her newborn daughter. The show ends in the future, with Jenna finally living her dream of having her own pie shop/diner.

While the film is a little darker than the musical, some details were changed and some characters lightened (especially some of the male characters aside from Earl), the heart and themes of Shelly's film live on and are now immortalized in this fantastic musical. "It's really fun to watch and feel the audience reaction about something you've made in the world," says Bareilles, who attended the L.A. premiere and came onstage with Nelson for a curtain call after the show. "To see people laugh or to see people cry and feel moved [is amazing]."

As Oakley emoted some of Bareilles' lyrics for "She Used to Be Mine," an empowering anthem Jenna sings to herself, it was hard not to be moved ("Growing stronger each day 'til it finally reminds her to fight just a little, to bring back the fire in her eyes/She is gone, but she used to be mine"). In today's world, marginalized people everywhere, especially women like Jenna and her fellow waitresses, need a reminder to fight just a little and bring back the fire in their eyes — and their pies. Waitress at the Pantages is that reminder.

GO! Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; through Aug. 26; HollywoodPantages.com/Waitress.

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