On its face, “Waitress” seems like a heavy show. After all, it involves domestic abuse, unplanned pregnancy and infidelity.
But there’s pie. Lots of pie. Humor, too. The color palette is bright and cheery, and the charm is as Southern as a glass of sweet tea. There’s affection among friends, and the show is set to a terrific Tony-nominated pop score by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles.
For Christine Dwyer, who plays Jenna in the national tour of “Waitress” opening at the First Interstate Center for the Arts on Wednesday, the opportunity to play the role is special.
“It’s my favorite character I’ve ever played. It’s my favorite musical I’ve ever been in,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I feel generally in my life and experiences I connect with her the most.”
“Waitress” made history when it debuted on Broadway in 2016 for having an all-female creative team, with choreography by Lorin Latarro, direction by Diane Paulus, book by Jessie Nelson and music by Bareilles. The show, which was based on the 2007 film written and directed by Adrienne Shelly and starring Keri Russell, also features a trio of strong female lead characters, headed by Jenna, the pie baker, and her fellow waitresses Becky and Dawn.
“The last three bows of the show are the three female leads, and that never happens,” she said, adding that the input of the show’s creative team really comes through. “The story feels real to the female experience, it feels natural and grounded in that way. … If you’re going to tell the story of three women struggling through things and you’re going to tell the story about pregnancy and marriage from the female perspective, you have to have that. And I definitely think it shows through because we have that in our show.”
Jenna is married – unhappily – to Earl, who is an abusive jerk. She works at Joe’s diner with Becky and Dawn and the diner manager Cal. When Jenna learns she is pregnant, she hopes to use her pie-making skills to help her and her child find a fresh start. Along the way, she begins a dangerous romance but discovers the courage to change her life for the better.
“The story is not about the sad parts,” Dwyer said. “I mean it is, but it’s really about overcoming the sad parts of life and the trials that you go through. The story is about lifting yourself up.”
Dwyer has an interesting chemistry with the actor who plays the abusive husband, Earl. In fact, they’re engaged to be married. But working those tough scenes with fiance Matt DeAngelis is great, she said, because not only do they enjoy acting together, but they trust each other.
“With us, because we know each other well, and there is no animosity between the two of us, it can be weirdly fun to play those roles,” she said. “There’s never a moment where I think he’s going to go too far, and there’s never a moment where he feels like he can’t do the things he needs to do to get the job done and I’m going to be upset about it.”
Dwyer came to “Waitress” after “defying gravity” on tour and on Broadway as the green-hued Elphaba in “Wicked.” They’re both strong women, but very different roles, and Jenna, she said, is a role that feels closer to her own self.
“Elphaba can’t control her emotions when she’s going through something, and she pops off at people,” Dwyer said. “Jenna’s whole thing is she has all those emotions in her, but she diffuses them and deflects them and uses baking as her outlet to not think about what she’s going through.”
It was as Elphaba that Dwyer first encountered Spokane; she was the standby actress for the national tour that rolled through town in 2011.
“I’m excited to come back to Spokane. I haven’t been there in awhile,” she said. “I remember it being so beautiful. … I remember really liking the city.”
And she’s excited for Spokane to see her in “Waitress” and experience Bareilles’ music for themselves.
“If you’re not into musicals, you should still come see this musical anyway,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like a traditional musical. It feels kinda like a movie, even with the music. The music is unlike other big Broadway musicals. If you love big Broadway musicals, you also should see this too. … I’ve seen many people who don’t look like they come to musicals who when they talk to me at the stage door, they’re overwhelmed by the emotional journey of these characters and just really love it.”
And in the end, there’s pie. And Dwyer is all about the pie.
“Thanksgiving is the best. I love all the pie. Pumpkin pie. Sweet potato pie. Key lime pie. Pie is the best.”
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