Bryan Fenkart plays the role of Dr. Pomatter in the national tour of Waitress, composed by Grammy-nominee Sara Bareilles and based on the 2007 motion picture written by Adrienne Shelly. The musical tells the story of Jenna, an unhappy waitress and expert pie maker in the deep south, as she tries to leave her small town and loveless marriage. A baking contest and a handsome new doctor offer her a chance at freedom and a new life.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
I started acting because I lost a bet in my sophomore year of high school, and then I went to Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University and from there, it just kept going. Once I graduated, I moved to New York. For a while, I was writing comedy for the radio and the morning drive for all the ABC affiliates, and the country used to buy our comedy material. From 6 to 10 a.m., we would look at the headlines and write and record radio comedy bits. So I did that for a while while I was auditioning and doing voiceover work. At night, I worked as a doorman at a comedy club for about three years, and that sort of got me into standup, so that’s what I started doing. That’s what got me my agent. They came to a standup show that I was doing to see somebody else, liked what I was doing and that’s how I got my agent. Eventually, my agent was the one that pushed me toward musical theater and said “Well you sing, you can act, we should explore that avenue,” to which I replied that I do not dance at all. But I gave it a shot, and here I am, just riding that wave until I can’t anymore.
How did you get involved in Waitress?
I got an audition for the Broadway company, I guess two years ago now, and that one didn’t pan out, but I got pretty far down the audition line. Once this opportunity came up to tour, it was a much faster process. They had me skip all the initial auditions and just brought me in for the callback. I hopped on the subway home after the callback, and by the time I emerged from the subway, I had an offer, so it worked a lot quicker the second time around.
How long have you been a part of the show?
We opened in October, in Cleveland, so almost seven months now. D.C. will be our twenty-fourth city on the tour.
Can you elaborate on the audition process?
Diane Paulus, the director, she’s very particular and she needs to see a lot of material. When I went in the first time, it was probably a solid 28 pages of material. I think it was all four of the songs I sing in the show, plus four scenes I had to audition with. Initially, not the whole creative team is there. You go in just with the reader and the casting director, and then the next time you go in, Sara and Diane are there. It was obviously a lot more intimidating once you see Sara Bareilles behind the table. Luckily, she’s incredibly disarming and grounded and down to earth. She has a way of taking away your stress. So that was the whole audition process, and I probably had to go in four or five times in total the first time. The second time around, they had already seen me do it and they knew I could do it. It was more of a “let’s make sure in the time between the first audition and the second audition he hasn’t forgotten how to talk.”
Are the pies in the show actual pies you get every day?
I don’t eat much of the pie onstage, so I’m going off of what other people have said. From what I understand, most of the pies are props, but the pies that people eat are usually made by somebody local to that city. They have somebody baking pies and bringing them in, so that’s what most of the cast is eating. I only take one mouthful of whipped cream and that’s pretty much it for me for the whole show.
How do they store the pies and where do they keep them?
I believe that, at the top of the week, they get a bunch. We have a food room where all the food that’s used in the show is prepared so it’s not sitting on the prop table with everything else.
Do you do anything in particular to ensure that your character is a direct contrast to Earl and the other men in the show?
I don’t do anything too drastic because I think that it’s in the writing. Jessie Nelson’s script was very well-written in the sense that I think all the male characters are differentiated on the page. There’s not a whole lot of work we have to do, but it’s also about temperaments and just me naturally as a person. I have a bit of that neurotic streak that Dr. Pomatter has and that comes across. I don’t think I could play Earl. Part of that is casting also and making sure these people are reading the way they should read. None of the men in the show, and none of the women either actually, are being faithful. Everyone is cheating and everyone is doing a bad thing, but it’s whether or not they are doing it for a good reason. So while you’re still rooting for some of these guys, and technically yeah, Earl is the bad guy, but there’s really no good guys in this entire show, which I think is very human. To differentiate the characters, it’s already on the page but in the way we were cast, I think you’ll see it. It’s evident in the way we approach these things.
Can you talk about the song “Bad Idea?”
It’s one of my favorite songs in the show. It’s also one of the hardest. That’s the last thing you see in Act One, when Jenna and Dr. Pomatter finally consummate what has been developing the rest of the show, which is this unspoken but very obvious attraction between the two. So that song is the culmination of that conflict of them realizing that what they’re doing is truly a terrible idea on almost every possible level. Especially for my character, because he’s not only cheating on his wife, but he’s also risking his career as a doctor. But it’s them saying “There’s still something so right about it,” which I think is the reason people engage in behavior like this, because as wrong as it is, there’s something about it that feels either exciting or like an escape, or whatever reason we justify these things with. That song sort of becomes the anthem of justification for our bad behavior.
Can you elaborate on what you meant when you said it was hardest song in the show?
It’s one of the more rock songs in the show, but it’s also in an awkward time signature. In addition to where it sits in our voices, which is pretty high for both of us, it’s a tricky time to keep in the back of your head while you’re also trying to remember the choreography, because sometimes they don’t match exactly. It was very difficult to learn from the standpoint of trying to marry music, movement, meaning, all those things. If it were just one or the other, it would be different and not quite as difficult. But there is a bit more “pop-yness” to it, especially in that bridge. The melodies are really kind of difficult. There’s some riffs in there that aren’t built for everybody. I even remember asking Sara, “How do you do this part in the bridge? I’m having trouble.” And she just said “Ah sorry, I don’t really know how to write for boys.” She said it half as a joke, but I was obviously not the first person to have this problem, so it was comforting in that way. But I think that was what was most difficult, especially the time signature because it’s difficult to tap out.
How closely did you work with Sara, and what role did she have in the production process once it was written?
Considering this was a tour, she did not have to be as involved as she was, and she was there for a lot of our rehearsal process. I really appreciated that, because she cares and she cares about how this comes across. She knew how many new people were going to see this show that hadn’t seen it before, and she was very hands-on in making sure it was just as polished as the Broadway production. I really admire that, because I think a lot of people would not have made that effort, and she was there for almost the entire rehearsal process. She would help us with the music and she was very helpful with Desi Oakley [Jenna] because she had played the part before. She was helpful as far as just little minute details only the actor playing the part would think of. To have the person who wrote the music be there to help us learn it was awesome because they know more about it than anybody else possibly could. She’s just an incredibly approachable, down-to-earth person, which is something you want when you’re dealing with a pop star. There’s always that fear that they’re going be head-in-the-clouds, sort of above it all, but she was very far from that.
Sara said this was the first time she had written for theater so this was her first delving into that world.
Yeah, it was. And it’s pretty remarkable how well she transitioned into it, because it is a very different world. There are pop musicals that contain pop music, but there’s a different goal when you’re writing a standalone pop song and when you’re writing songs that a) have to have an arc and b) the entire purpose is to move the story forward. But she has managed to transition, I think pretty seamlessly. She’s always been a storyteller in her songwriting, but they were just smaller stories, so she just made it a larger story and it transitions really nicely. Her writing was already very well thought out, so transitioning into theater seemed to come pretty naturally to her. I don’t know if it really did, maybe she would tell you it’s really hard, but to all of us, it sounds like it was something she was sort of meant to do.
What has been the most challenging part of playing Dr. Pomatter?
With this character, there’s a very fine line for him between being a total goofball, because he is supposed to be awkward and funny and neurotic, but he’s also kind of the heart of the show in the sense that he is the catalyst behind her [Jenna] change. He is the reason she starts doubting the position she’s in. She’s in this dead-end situation with a terrible husband and job she doesn’t like, and then all of a sudden, this new thing comes along and wakes her up, and she does the same for him. I think what makes it difficult is that he can’t just be wacky and funny because then no one would care about you, but he can’t just be romantic and sincere because then it’s not the comedic foil that he needs to be. There’s a delicate line between the comedy of it and the heart of it, and I think that’s what’s been the trickiest: to make sure no matter how “funny” I’m supposed to be in the show, to always keep it grounded and true to reality and make sure it’s always coming from a genuine, authentic place, and not from a place of “well, this is where the laugh is.” It shouldn’t come from a place of “this should be funny,” it should always come from a place of it always being a genuine reaction, genuine feeling. So that’s been the trickiest balance with this character. But I like this balance too, because I also like morally ambiguous characters. I don’t believe in good or bad people, I believe people do good or bad things. So having to walk that balance, while it’s tricky, I enjoy characters where you have to go “Well, I like this guy, despite the fact that I shouldn’t like this guy.” I think it makes you think more, it makes you look in a mirror more.
What has been the most rewarding part of working on this production?
Working with Sara. I think that’s what has drawn me the most. But it’s also a very timely story. It’s a very empowering show for women, so the timing of it, as far as the political and social climate right now, this show is happening at the right time. It’s kind of an honor to be involved in a show that can actually make an impact because people are finally listening. To be able to be a part of a very strong, forward movement for women in theater is important. Historically and currently, it’s important to be a part of.
You mentioned before there are some sexual scenes in the show. How are these handled on stage?
They toned it down a bit for the tour. It’s really minor chorographical shifts. It’s hard to explain without seeing it, but there are a few things that they toned down so it’s less overtly sexual and more implied sexual, so that makes a big difference. So even though the differences are subtle, it makes a big difference in the way it’s processed by the audience. It’s not that it’s watered down, they just made it a little more palpable for a traveling show.
Are there any other major differences between the tour and the Broadway production?
It’s very similar for the most part. Really the only differences are that they cleaned up the language and a little bit of the more sexual choreography. The rest of it is very similar to Broadway in almost every way. There’s a few set differences because of the tour since the theaters are different, but it’s pretty faithful to the original.
How do you pack up and travel with the different set pieces?
The head of every department travels with us, and then we meet up with the local crew in every city. Our crew is the one that has to teach the local crew what they need to do every time. But we have six trucks that our set comes with us on, that way our entire stage come with us and we lay it on top of the stage that is at the theater. That way, our stage is never different and it’s always exactly the same. The second you leave the stage, the backstage is different, so that can be jarring sometimes. But we just lay down our show deck on top of their deck so it’s the same everywhere we go.
Do you rehearse in each city before you open?
We do a sound check and an orientation to the theater. We run through a few of the songs to get used to the sound of the new place. There’s a little girl involved at the very end of the show, and that’s a local we cast in each city. We cast two little girls, so we rehearse with them so they get to meet us and know what they’re doing, who they’re going to be acting with, so we do that every Tuesday. As far as rehearsals go, they still rehearse the understudies during the week, and sometimes we’ll have brush-ups on choreography or music. If the assistant director is in town, she’ll come watch the show and then we’ll have a rehearsal with her the next day to just brush up and polish a few things. Naturally, when you’re doing a show for so long, it slowly gets some rust on it, and their job is to come in and we’ll have a rehearsal or two to polish it up. But we’re definitely not rehearsing every day and it’s not like we run through the show in every city we’re in. At this point, we’ve done it 230-something times, so we know it well enough that we don’t need a full rehearsal, just usually a sound check before the actual show.
How far in advance do you get to the city before opening?
The day before. Usually Monday, late afternoon, we’ll come in and get situated in our hotels and that’s it. Our one day off a week is our travel day, usually. Luckily, in D.C. we’re there for three weeks so we don’t have to travel on two of those Mondays, so we’ll have two legitimate days off, which is very uncommon for us.
Do you ever have a chance to tour the cities you perform in?
Luckily, during the week when we don’t have rehearsals, we have our afternoons free, so we can usually squeeze in a few touristy-type things in every city, even if it’s just a couple. Especially in D.C., there’s so much to do, so I’m sure we’ll take up some of our afternoon time hitting up the touristy stuff.
How long do you have in between each tour stop?
Usually we do eight shows, Tuesday through Sunday, and then we travel Monday, so we really don’t have any time in between stops. If it’s under 350 miles, we take a bus, and if it’s over, we fly.
You mentioned before the little girls in the show. What is it like always having two new girls come in and learn the dynamic?
I never act with the girls, so I just get to observe from a distance, and it’s pretty funny. Four or five year olds have interesting little personalities, and you can tell which are the ones that are doing it because they really want to be there. There are some that are so outgoing and bubbly and fun, and the second they see an audience, they freeze because there’s 3,000 people that weren’t there before. It’s only happened once actually that a girl froze entirely and wouldn’t go on, so luckily, out of 200 something shows, that’s only happened once.
What did you do when that happened?
Our backup plan, which is not the best, but it’s what we got, is when Jenna first gives birth in the show, she’s handed a prop baby that’s sort of swaddled so you can’t see it. So they just put that in a car seat and they talk to that, so you can’t see the child inside it. It hurts the timeline of the show a bit, because you’re supposed to think it’s a few years into the future, and that looks like it’s immediately after she gave birth. So that’s the only major issue, that it messes with the timeline a little bit. It’s not a terrible solution, but it’s obviously not ideal.
What can audiences expect to see from Jenna and Dr. Pomatter’s relationship?
They light something on fire in each other. There’s a wake-up call for both of them, and I think that’s what you’ll hopefully see. Both of them are sort of coasting for their own reasons, and they meet each other and are sort of woken up to that they don’t have to coast, that there’s maybe something out there that will revitalize them. Hopefully the audience will see a reflection in them, that you don’t necessarily have to float by and hope things get better and maybe there’s something better right around the corner that’s going to change things for you and wake you up. The show is careful not to condone cheating, but it’s also very honest. It basically says that yes, this is happening, and we’re not saying you should, but we’re not going to tell you it doesn’t because it does. I appreciate the honesty and it doesn’t shy away from saying, “look, this happens a lot, but sometimes this happens for okay reasons, despite the fact that it’s a wrong thing.” That’s one of the things I love about the show: how human it is. These are all people. From soup to nuts, every character in the show is making some kind of mistake. I really appreciate that there’s nobody in the show that is, morally, completely clean, because that’s life. That’s us, and I appreciate that a lot because not even the heroes of the show are not without their flaws. I think in Jenna and Pomatter’s relationship, you’re seeing two flawed people who are making mistakes, but for the right reasons and because they needed to discover something about themselves. Hopefully, that will help people see that they can also discover things about themselves.
Is there anything you want audiences to know or think about before seeing the show?
Despite some of the marketing, it’s not for young kids, I’ll say that. It’s fine for teenagers — in fact, because of Sara Bareilles, teenage girls make up a large part of our audience. That’s fine because they at least understand what they are seeing. But as far as what to expect going in, it really is a good time. For how serious some of the subject matter is, a show that deals with unwanted pregnancy and domestic abuse, it actually walks on pretty light feet. You’re armed with the knowledge going in that you’re going to see something that is heavy, but handled delicately, and you will laugh probably more than you are upset by it because you have to juxtapose those things with a little bit of humor. If you’ve seen the movie, you sort of know what to expect. But I actually like when people show up and don’t know much about it, so sometimes that can be a really effective way to see the show. It can be surprising, especially when you see all the marketing. It’s brightly colored and there’s pies and there’s smiles and it’s called “Waitress” and it looks all hunky dory. Not to say that it’s super dark, but it can be jarring if you are expecting a musical about pie.
Can you talk about Adrienne Shelly?
This show came along so long after her death, so we never dealt with her. But Jessie Nelson, our book writer, did know her and [we] have to be very careful about two things. One was making sure that her writing of the musical was in the same vein as Adrienne’s writing and really try to keep the same voice, which is tricky sometimes. And the other thing is that Adrienne Shelly played Dawn in the movie, so that became one of the hardest roles to cast in the show because everyone wanted to stay as faithful as they could to her vision of the character, but also understand that in a musical, it’s going to be a little different. So that always ended up being one of the hardest roles to cast, apparently, because of the fact that they wanted to stay so true to her vision and be respectful to her memories. I think those were the biggest challenges, with Jessie having to rewrite something that had been written already, using a different voice almost, and having to cast somebody who would stay faithful to her approach of the character but also be something new. But it’s a tragic story and it’s very sad that that happened the way it did.
*Note: Adrienne Shelly wrote the 2007 motion picture that the musical is based on. Shelly was murdered in 2006, before the movie premiered.
Is it true that Nelson used some of Shelly’s unfinished scripts in writing the musical?
I know they pulled some ideas, but I don’t know exactly. By the time we were rehearsing the show, they had already gone through that with the Broadway company, so we never dealt with an unfinished script the way that the first cast did. We were dealing with a much more finished project.
Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity. Feature photo credit to Joan Marcus.
Waitress will run at the National Theatre in Washington D.C. from May 15 through June 3.
Note: Content is my own, but was originally published in 2018 on The Writer's Bloc