Leading Lady Desi Oakley Whips Up a Hit in the Waitress Broadway TourFrom the time Desi Oakley was a young girl growing up in Wichita, Kansas, she loved performing in musical theater and her passion continued to grow. Now she is starring in the Broadway tour of the musical Waitress and can’t believe the incredible journey that got her here.
It started with her first role as the spunky middle daughter, Brigitta von Trapp, in the Sound of Music at the Music Theater of Wichita when she was just eight years old. Her mentor, Wayne Bryan, saw something in the young Desi and nurtured her talent, and she credits him for the magical career journey she has undertaken.
Now, at age 28, Desi has been seen on Broadway in Wicked, Les Misérables, and the original revival cast of Annie, and in the national tours of Evita and Wicked. She is also a singer-songwriter, and her original music can be found on Spotify and iTunes.
Desi is thrilled to be portraying the leading role of Jenna in the touring company of Waitress, which is bringing its heartfelt Valentine’s Day treats to the Forest Theater as part of the Philadelphia Broadway series, from Tuesday, Feb. 13 through Sunday, Feb. 18.
Brought to life by a groundbreaking all-female creative team, Waitress, an irresistible musical, was inspired by Adrienne Shelly’s beloved 2007 film of the same name starring Keri Russell in the leading role of Jenna.
Waitress tells the story of Jenna, a waitress and expert pie maker able to create scrumptious works of art from eggs, butter, flour, sugar and other pie ingredients, dreams of finding a way out of her small town and her 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.
“It is such a highlight for us to welcome the incredible and empowering show Waitress for its Philadelphia debut at the Forrest Theatre,” said Anne Ewers, President and CEO of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
“We can’t wait to have the diner roll into the City of Brotherly Love,” said Ewers, “for what is sure to be a very sweet week!”
This musical, which charmed Broadway and was frequently called “a little slice of heaven,” is an uplifting and empowering celebration of friendship, motherhood, and the magic of a well-made pie.
The following is an exclusive PCM interview with Desi Oakley of Waitress.
Why did you initially get involved in musical theater?
DESI OAKLEY: I think it was something a lot of kids do who have a lot of energy. I wanted to do something special and Wayne saw something in me. As a child I didn’t know what I was getting myself into it.
What do you fondly remember about that time?
DO: I told my mother — who calls herself my Number One Fan — that it was really going to be my voice on stage. I was so proud and to tell her that.
How did the Music Theater of Wichita change your life?
DO: In so many ways. Wayne taught me how to audition, the right scripts to study and the parts to learn. He said if you really want this, you can do this as a career.
Have you kept in touch with your mentor?
DO: Yes. He came to see me in Waitress in Kansas and it was a tearful reunion. He was so proud, and I thanked him for being able to give me a glimpse of what Broadway is like from Wichita. He made a huge impact on not only me, but on our entire community.
Who else came to see the show when you were in Kansas City?
DO: My parents, the rest of my immediate family, and my extended family and practically everyone who has watched me grow up came to Kansas City. That was an early stop in our tour and people got to come right away. It was so rewarding to share that with the Desi Fan Club.
Tell me about your journey to the role of Jenna.
DO: I started working pretty soon after graduating in 2011 from the University of Michigan. I debuted in Wicked on Broadway as a part that no longer exists called the universal swing. There were three companies of Wicked and I would run around to all three of them.
DO: Thanks. I did ensemble parts for all of the companies and it was a really wonderful first job, even with all of its challenges. I had to know every moving part of each show and every action so it really taught me a lot. Looking back that role was at the bottom and this role is at the top, and I don’t know if I would have believed my younger self if I had heard, ‘six or seven years from now you will play the lead role in a Broadway musical and all of your hard work will off.’ That is very special to me.Were you familiar with the movie?
DO: Not at first. I saw the Broadway Company of Waitress about a year or so ago, and once I got the call from my agent that they were looking for a Jenna for a national tour, I studied the movie because I wanted to see the origins of the story. I wanted to dive into Adrienne Shelly’s version and Keri Russell’s performance and all of that informed my version of Jenna.
Do you have friends in the show?
DO: Yes. My best friends are my two co-stars and we play best friends at the diner. We have grown to love one another on stage and off. We are the waitresses and we support one another. It is special to have a real life friendship with them while we are portraying this close bond on stage.
When did the Waitress tour begin and do you enjoy touring?
DO: We started the tour in early October and the first show was in Cleveland on Oct. 20. It’s a lot of fun. I get to see a lot of cities I wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to visit and meet the locals. I love feeling the vibe of each city and it definitely keeps us on our toes.
Where are you now?
DO: Buffalo, New York, and it is definitely cold here.
Are there any cities that have surprised you during the tour?
DO: I would say Des Moines, Iowa, which is really charming. I loved Baltimore, and it was so much fun for me to go back to Kansas City and see how far that city has come.
Are you looking forward to coming to Philadelphia?
DO: Definitely, yes. It’s one of my favorite cities.
DO: I love the vibe of the city and all of the different neighborhoods – that local vibe really makes me feel at home. I enjoy Reading Terminal Market, the thriving theater scene and the rich culture. I just love all of it.
Who do you know that is coming to see the show in Philadelphia?
DO: I have so many friends coming from New York each night we are in Philadelphia, which I am really looking forward to.
Back to your career for a moment, what is the best advice you ever received that you feel helped you through difficult times in your life?
DO: I think the best advice is to work hard and be kind.
Please tell me more.
DO: Success comes from working hard and pursuing it with all that I have, yet at the same time I have always chosen kindness. So, I notice in my career that people want to work with me because I am kind. I believe this will prove to you to be longer lasting than singing the highest note or being the most talented one in the room. Kindness goes a long way coupled with hard work.
How do you advise those who see you as a role model on how to deal with the rejection that comes from a performing arts career?
DO: I think if you want it bad enough the rejection will only fuel you. I believe that hearing the word “no” is almost always creating space for the word yes.
I know you are super busy with the tour, but how do you spend any free time?
DO: I love to do yoga and I find studios in each city we go to and I attempt to do it every day. I love the stretching and the meditation; it keeps me grounded amid a stressful job, moving cities and a role that is heavy, emotional and challenging.
Is there anything else besides yoga?
DO: I enjoy watching Netflix to clear my mind. I enjoyed it so much I am re-watching the period show The Crown.
It is a favorite of mine along with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon, which stars Rachel Brosnahan.
DO: I will have to check that out.
Tell me about the two little girls who play Jenna’s daughter in the show.
DO: We call them the “Little Lulu’s. We ‘adopt’ two little girls in each city and it has been very successful so far in 25 different cities. They are the sweetest little girls. They have to be under age five, and at that age they still want to follow all the rules. They are eager, excited and joyful. There are two girls and each of them handles four performances per week.
How are the mothers who come with them?
DO: Wonderful. These parents are just ecstatic for this opportunity to work with us and to see the caliber of the performance. It reminds me of when I was a young girl doing my craft in the middle of an incredibly professional environment. We make sure to carve out rehearsal time for each of them so that each little Lulu will feel safe.
What do you hope for your future career? Broadway, TV, film?
DO: Yes, all of it. I am very happy, and lucky, to be able to do something that I love so much.
Why should people come to see Waitress?
DO: This this show is very special. It is a humanistic story of real life – not some fairy tale. Jenna is the girl next door. She is every woman. The audience can dive into something that is tangible and relatable.
And also something tasty. Does all of that pie making pique your appetite
DO: Yes, it defiantly makes me hungry.
Do you cook and bake in your real life?
DO: Yes, I know my way around a kitchen. I’m not as good as Jenna, the expert, but I can whip up a few things that she would be proud of.
Everybody loves pie. What is your favorite pie?
That’s one of my favorites, too. It has been a pleasure talking to you.
DO: Thank you so much, and enjoy the show!
For more Waitress tour information, please visit: http://waitressthemusical.com.
Tickets can be purchased by calling 215-731-3333, online at kimmelcenter.org, or at the Kimmel Center Box Office. Group sales are available for 10 or more and can be purchased by calling 215-790-5883.