From the number of laughs it gets, “Waitress” might seem like a lighthearted and fun musical.
That’s only a small slice of the story though. The musical, which heads to Proctors on Tuesday, follows Jenna, a waitress and expert pie-maker who is in an abusive marriage and is unexpectedly pregnant. She uses baking as a distraction, often baking with Becky and Dawn, fellow waitresses and her best friends. When she hears about a baking contest in a nearby town, Jenna decides to take a chance and compete. It opens up new possibilities for her future.
Tony-nominated musical was brought to life by an all-female creative team, including recording artist Sara Bareilles and screenwriter Jessie Nelson. It’s inspired by Adrienne Shelley’s film by the same name, which was released in 2007.
before the show made its way to the Electric City, The Gazette caught up with Ephie Aardema, who plays Dawn. Aardema, who has starred in the Broadway production of “Clueless,” and “The Bridges of Madison County,” as well as the off-Broadway production of “Songbird,” tells us about her unlikely start in the acting world and the reason she’s most excited to visit Schenectady (spoiler: it has to do with goats).
Q: How did you get into acting? Was it something you wanted to do when you were growing up?
A: I stumbled into it. My mom was a single working parent and I was in an after-school program in my elementary school and it was next to a dance studio. I just didn’t really enjoy the after school program so I asked my mom if I could instead go next door to the dance studio every day. That’s how I started dancing. Then, everyone at [the] studio was auditioning for community theater, for “Annie.” I went with them to sign up to work backstage. I was filling out the forms and [the organizers] were like “You should just go in and sing a song you know!” I did that and they ended up casting me as Annie. I was really excited but also mortified because all my friends wanted [the role]. Some of them had dyed their hair and sewn costumes. I cried because I thought my friends were going to hate me. But everyone was so nice about it.
Q: Do you remember being nervous to be on stage and have that lead role?
A: I wasn’t really nervous. I was quite focused. It was the first thing that I can remember being passionate about, feeling the desire to practice when no one was asking [me] to. I didn’t start getting nervous until I was an adult. [It] wasn’t until I was on my own and making money for myself; trying to put a roof over my head. I think, over time, you have a build-up of rejections and at a certain time in your life, you start to feel that anxiety that everybody feels. But I didn’t feel that until I was well into my 20s and I started when I was 8.
Q: What did your mom think of you getting into acting?
A: My mom has always been very supportive. She’s kind of a miracle parent because we didn’t have money. I remember there were times when we couldn’t pay the bills so we wouldn’t have electricity. My mom would do shadow puppets on the wall whenever the lights would go out so it wasn’t scary. It was [just] a fun thing I would do with my mom. Now I look back and I go “oh, we didn’t have electricity because we had no money.” Or “we had SpaghettiOs for dinner every night that week because we didn’t have [anything else].” I didn’t realize it at the time because my mom was such an incredibly positive influence in my life. She never gave way to being worried. So the fact that she let me do theater, which is not a lucrative job, is pretty much a miracle. We did a little bit better once I was in high school, I remember things were more consistent. My mom must have been better off but to be honest, I never knew the difference. The fact that she was able to make me feel that way was huge.
Q: Your acting career has taken you to Broadway and all over the country. In some productions, like “Songbird” and “Clueless,” you were able to originate the roles.
A: Especially with “Song Bird,” I worked on it for years, in workshops and things like that.
Q: What was that like?
A: This character didn’t really exist in the way that people would expect. “Songbird” is based on “The Seagull.” So this character is based on Nina and has been played in “The Seagull” many times. I had worked on that role in college extensively. But “Songbird” is contemporary and the character over the years took on its own life and wasn’t an exact replica of Nina, but was informed by [her]. I definitely put a lot of myself into that character.
Q: I’m guessing that was completely different from preparing for your role in “Waitress.”
A: Yeah, I was a replacement so I had two weeks to learn the show. I had to just trust myself artistically that I kind of already knew what I wanted to do with the role and focus on learning the show. The technical stuff was my main focus but I’ve been in the show for about three months now and that’s the time that I spent more developing the relationships and the character and my version of her within this form that we have, finding the freedom in that form.
Q: What aspects of your character do you identify with?
A: I think that she has a lot of empathy. I don’t know if that’s in the text but I feel it. I think that’s my favorite thing about her.
Q: When did you first see “Waitress”?
A: The first time I saw it was on Broadway with Sara Bareilles and my friend Caitlin Houlahan played Dawn and she’s actually back playing it again in New York. We’re old friends; we did “Parade” together at the Lincoln Center.
Q: Is that strange to be sharing a role with a friend?
A: It’s fun to know that you have a connection like that with someone you actually know. But I feel connected with all of the girls who’ve played Dawn. The girl who played it on Broadway before Caitlin came back, her name is Lena, she played it on the tour first. I’ve actually never met her [but] we talk online sometimes to say hello and send well-wishes because we feel connected to one another.
Q: When they see the show, a lot of people say they’re surprised by how much they laughed because there’s a lot of heavy subject matter woven in.
A: A lot of times people will say [that]. It all draws from the spirit of the original movie that was written by Adrienne Shelly. We all wished that we could have met her. She was murdered shortly before the film premiered so she never got to see what happened to her movie. Her daughter was involved in the [musical] and gave it her blessing so that’s meaningful. I think that the elements of it being such heavy material but being able to be so light-hearted and whimsical all comes from that original movie and the spirit that she gave to it. She was not only the writer she also directed it and played Dawn. I keep a picture of her on my dressing room station in every city to remind me of her spirit and that what we’re doing is important in that we’re paying homage to her.
Q: What’s getting to know the touring company been like?
A: It was intimidating to think about it. When I was flying out from New York to meet the cast — they were in Houston at the time, that was the thing I was most nervous about; not doing the show but joining a family of actors where you have no idea what the energy is. You have no idea what the social dynamics are and you’re going to join them and they’re going to be the only people you see every single day. You live, travel, and work with these people and I was signing up for seven months. I got so lucky because it’s just the warmest group of people; everybody really cares about each other so I really lucked out in that way.
Q: Anything else you want people to know before the show?
A: I’m really excited about Schenectady [because] I’m staying on a goat farm there. We have the option to opt out of the hotel and get our own housing so that’s what I’m doing. I’m staying in a yurt on a goat farm so I’m stoked about Schenectady.
MORE INFO: proctors.org
Two local girls cast as Lulu
Two local girls will be in the cast on the Schenectady tour dates. Genevieve Carmichael of Amsterdam and Viviana DiMezza of Perth will both play Lulu, Jenna’s daughter. Carmichael, who is 4 years old, and DiMezza, who is 5 years old, will be splitting the role, with each actress performing in four performances during the run.
They were both cast earlier this year, during an audition at Proctors, lead by associate casting director Dayna Dantzler. Nearly 40 actresses from around the Capital Region auditioned for the roles.