Desi Oakley: 'Waitress' is a celebration of gloriously ordinary, real women

Bryan Fenkart and Desi Oakley in the National Tour of WAITRESS Credit Joan Marcus
Bryan Fenkart and Desi Oakley in the national touring production of the hit Broadway musical ‘Waitress,’ playing at The Buell Theatre in Denver from Dec. 19-31. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The star of the national tour says Waitress is a movie, a stage musical and a concert experience — all at once

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

Desi Oakley has played a lot of larger-than-life characters in her stage career, from Evita to Elphaba. But the popular new musical Waitress gives the Broadway star the rare opportunity to play a gloriously ordinary real woman: Jenna, the pie-maker in an everyday diner in Smalltown USA.

“Jenna is just your average girl next door,” Oakley said in advance of Waitress’ arrival in Denver on Tuesday. “And in fact, I felt even more of a calling to tell this story because she’s so real.”

Waitress is the stage adaptation of the late Adrienne Shelly’s breakout indie film of the same name. Oakley plays a pregnant, unhappily married waitress who, Oakley says, is a bit stuck.

Waitress Quote Desi Oakley“You know immediately that this woman is not in the best place,” Oakley said. “And the people who love her are asking, ‘Are you going to stay where you’re at for the rest of your life? Or are you going to dive deep, discover where you really want to be, and go for your dreams? Do you have the guts? Those are the big questions we ask throughout the show.”

And now that she is embodying a gloriously ordinary waitress, Oakley said, she can never look at a real-life server in a restaurant the same way again.  

“I absolutely cannot,” she said for emphasis. “Jenna is a great reminder for all of us that when you walk into a Denny’s or an International House of Pancakes, you should never assume that you know what the life is behind this person who has been tasked with serving you. You never know what somebody is going through. You have no idea how long they’ve been standing on their feet that day.

“When I go onstage, we do a show for a couple of hours. Your real waitress might be pulling a double-shift. And she doesn’t get an intermission.”  

Oakley likes to talk about the bones of people. Down deep, deep, deep, deep — what are your bones like? And when she walks into a Denny’s, she can’t help but see the bones of the women serving her. And more often than not, she discovers that waitress bones are shared bones.

“I notice how they talk to each other,” she said. “How they rely on each other. How they find these little moments to share things with each other. How they sneak away to dry the mugs that are already dry, just to get a couple seconds together to catch up about life. Those dynamics are interesting to me. Do these people necessarily host each other for dinner parties? Maybe not. But at the restaurant, they’re each other’s lifeline. They’re each other’s rock. That’s true in our story too.”

Jenna’s bones, Oakley said, are sweet and kind and loving. “But she’s also kind of witty and sarcastic. And she’s a little bit dry. She might give you a little one-liner here or there. But ultimately, she will smile at you, and she will take your order, and she will hustle it to the back. She’ll probably offer you special pie of the day that she invented that morning.

“She was probably in the pantry by 6 a.m. making her pies — 27 varieties of them, every day, by the way. She’s proud of it — but that’s all she knows. She doesn’t necessarily think of herself as anything more than what you see at first. But she’s got a lot more going on at home than meets the eye.”

Here’s more from our conversation with Desi Oakley in advance of the national touring production of Waitress’ arrival in Denver on Tuesday:

John Moore: You came through Denver starring in the national tour of Evita. Does being here for the holidays have any special significance for you?

Desi Oakley: Oh, yes. I have a huge, special place in my heart for Denver. I grew up next door in Kansas, and we came to Colorado every year for camping, skiing, summer hikes, winter ski trips — all that stuff. And not only does the outdoors and nature appeal to me immensely, but there is a vibe about the city of Denver that is so cool and so relaxed. You have awesome restaurants, and the buzz is just cool. Denver is my second-favorite city in the whole United States, in fact, next to New York City.

Our interview with Lenne Klingaman of Waitress

John Moore: So if people know anything about Waitress, it’s from the source film. What do you want to say to fans of the movie about how the musical is different or enhances it?

Desi Oakley: If you loved the movie, you are going to love this musical. Plain and simple. Jessie Nelson, our book writer, adapted Adrienne Shelly‘s book into the screenplay. Some of these lines are straight from the film.

John Moore: So you have two writers who are really big deals right now — pop star Sara Bareilles, who has been nominated for six Grammy Awards — and Jessie Nelson, who writes for Curb Your Enthusiasm, among others. And they both came to Waitress new to writing for the musical theatre. So how is Waitress the musical enhanced by the fact that neither of the writers come from a traditional musical-theatre background?

A 400 2 waitress_credit-joan-marcus_23881748257_oDesi Oakley: Sara Bareilles, who wrote our music and lyrics, has taken the slightly sarcastic tone of the film and somehow implanted it into our music. But even before Waitress, I would contend that every one of her pop songs is its own miniature musical. Sara is such a witty, dynamic storyteller, and she can write a hook like nobody’s business. The songs in Waitress sound like they came right off of the radio. Believe me, you’ll walk out singing all of this music.

John Moore: What did you think when you first heard Bareilles was crossing over to write the music for Waitress?

Desi Oakley: That was one of the most appealing things about this show to me, honestly, and also that’s what helps make the story so real. When people hear, ‘It’s a musical,’ they usually think of big Broadway blockbusters like A Chorus Line or 42nd Street, with big tap-dance numbers and all these crazy costumes. But I am telling you: Watching Waitress on stage is so much like watching a film that it’s just wild. It’s like a film is somehow being brought to life in front of you in a way that I’ve never seen before in musical-theater history. It is as though the audience is the camera lens and we literally zoom in and out of these characters’ lives, and we flash back, and we pan. To me, Sara’s music works like the score of a film. It’s relevant, it’s topical, It’s nowadays. So as an audience member, you’re getting the best of everything that you could possibly want: It’s a movie experience, it’s a musical-theater experience, and it’s a concert experience, all at once. It is so real and tangible and electric — it is just buzzing the whole time.

John Moore: What does it mean to you to be part of the first Broadway musical to have women in all of the primary creative roles?

Desi Oakley: It is an unbelievable honor for me to be a part telling this story alongside these women creators. It’s a dream come true, especially as a woman actor. Particularly with this story. I feel like it’s so meant to be. But you should also understand that this is a universal story with men characters — and certainly a lot of men in the audience.

John Moore: Can you give me an example of how the storytelling is enhanced by the fact that these are women creatives telling the story?

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Desi Oakley: Well, absolutely. Jenna goes through some insanely woman-type things, like a pregnancy. So at one point in rehearsal, our Director, Diane Paulus, says to me, “Desi, when you have your contraction, let me just tell you, it feels like this …” That was extremely helpful advice. A lot of my performance comes directly from the actual life experiences of the women on our team. A man’s perspective is helpful, of course, but the fact that these women can dive in and pour into my Jenna woman-to-woman is insanely special.

John Moore: What does it say that it took until 2015 in an industry where 68 percent of all audiences are female for women to get the opportunity to create their own Broadway show?

Desi Oakley: It’s too bad. But all the more reason to celebrate. I mean the time is now. And, hopefully, we won’t ever look back. We’re starting this trend and, paving the way gladly. Waitress says that women have a voice in this industry to tell stories, and to tell them loud, bold and clear. And that is important. And it is empowering.” 

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

A video message to Denver from Desi Oakley:

Wichita native Desi Oakley has been seen on Broadway in Wicked, Les Misérables and Annie (original revival cast). And in other national tours: Evita and Wicked. As a singer-songwriter, her original music can be found on Spotify and iTunes. Follow her on social media channels @desioakley.

waitressWaitress in Denver: Ticket information
Inspired by Adrienne Shelly’s beloved film, Waitress tells the story of Jenna — a waitress and expert pie-maker who dreams of a way out of her small town and loveless marriage. A baking contest in a nearby county and the town’s new doctor may offer her a chance at a fresh start, while her fellow waitresses offer their own recipes for happiness. But Jenna must summon the strength and courage to rebuild her own life. This is an uplifting musical celebrating friendship, motherhood, and the magic of a well-made pie.

  • National touring production
  • Performances Dec. 19-31
  • Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Tickets start at $25
  • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • Sales to groups of 10 or more click here

    Selected NewsCenter coverage of Waitress:

    Lenne Klingaman. Waitress. Photo by Joan MarcusFrom left: Lenne Klingaman, Desi Oakley and Charity Angel Dawson in the first national touring production of ‘Waitress,’ coming to Denver from Dec. 19-31. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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