The hit musical Waitress centers on a bighearted heroine named Jenna, who embarks on a quest for a happier life, fueled by an unexpected romance and an almost magical ability to bake delicious pies. It’s a role that requires great singing — no surprise, since the score was written by Grammy winner Sara Bareilles, who has played multiple engagements as Jenna — and the Broadway company is getting set to welcome powerhouse vocalist and actress Ciara Renée to the Barrymore Theatre on November 25.
Back in March 2020, Renée had just begun a dream run as Elsa in Frozen when Broadway went dark, a loss that made the opportunity to star in Waitress at the end of 2021 feel especially poignant. She fell in love with the show anew in September when Bareilles headlined the reopening. “Seeing Sara’s performance, and the connection between the actors and the audience after being away for so long, was heart-opening and powerful,” Renée says. “She’s so effortless and authentic.” The actress praises Bareilles’s Tony-nominated score as “ethereal and beautiful and almost otherworldly at times. Sara is such a master of craft, she’s able to jump in and out of genres, and every character has a specific voice. That’s next-level writing.”
After her initial audition, Renée was pleasantly surprised to receive a complimentary letter from the composer: “It’s a testament to how compassionate and understanding she is.” Bareilles is quick to respond that her note wasn’t merely an act of kindness, calling Renée “an unforgettable presence.” Recalling her electrifying audition, Bareilles says, “As soon as I saw Ciara’s interpretation of the material, I felt compelled to reach out to her personally to tell her how moved I was by her performance — and this was long before we knew she would join our company. I am thrilled and honored for her to join our beautiful cast and tell Jenna’s story with her natural grace, honesty, and charm. Lucky us.”
Adding to Renée’s excitement is the opportunity to reteam with three-time Tony Award nominee Joshua Henry as Dr. Pomatter, Jenna’s obstetrician and love interest. The two costarred in the acclaimed 2019 Off-Broadway musical The Wrong Man and have appeared together in concert and in playful TikTok music videos. (Renée keeps in close touch with her 137,000 Instagram followers and almost 21,000 TikTok followers.) “When Josh called to tell me we’re playing opposite each other, I couldn’t believe my luck,” Renée says of the actor she refers to online as her #WorkHusband. “We have such a good time working together, and he is such a skilled actor and musician — not to mention a stellar human! I’m on cloud nine and so excited for y’all to see what we cook up this time.”
As Jenna navigates her unhappy marriage while maintaining strong relationships with everyone at the diner where she works, she uses music to convey her shifting perspective, culminating in the showstopping anthem “She Used to Be Mine.” Explains Renée, “You’re watching this woman struggle to express and to release what’s keeping her from going to the next level in her life. She’s a complex, multifaceted woman, and we don’t necessarily get to see that often [on stage]. Hopefully, we’re moving into a world where it’s a little less rare.”
Since making her Broadway debut eight years ago in Big Fish, Renée has juggled theater, concerts, film, and TV, notably portraying Hawkgirl in the DC Comics superhero series Legends of Tomorrow. Growing up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, she had a clear vision of her future career as a performer. “I had big, big, big dreams,” she says with a laugh, “and I’ve met a lot of the benchmarks I set for myself.” Like Bareilles, Renée possesses a pop-flavored mezzo soprano; as a teen, she briefly worked with a Motown record producer before concluding that she felt more comfortable singing in character. “I honestly feel like musical theater saved my life,” she says.
Amid the isolation of the pandemic, Renée posted music and workout videos, taught workshops on acting through song, put together concert evenings in English and French (!), and appeared in three movies, including the forthcoming Paint, starring Owen Wilson. “I love performing in every genre,” she says, “and at this point in the industry, you really have to.”
For now, Renée — who describes herself as a “Black mixed” woman — is thrilled to share her version of Jenna. “There’s always an added layer to telling a story that wasn’t necessarily written for a person of color,” she observes. “What’s beautiful about this experience is that Waitress is a very human story, so anybody can fit in here. The entire team is being intentional and thoughtful in [exploring] what it means to have people of color in certain roles. For me, it feels like the future. I know that, in a lot of ways, I am trailblazing in roles like Elsa and Hawkgirl and Jenna, and so I’m always thinking about what that looks like for young women coming up who need to see themselves in any and every role.”
As she homes in on her interpretation of the character, Renée marvels at how appropriate Jenna’s path toward self-discovery seems in a post-pandemic world. “There’s a rawness and deepness to this story, but also a lot of humor,” she says of Waitress. “And that’s life! We just went through this crazy year of feeling hopeless at times, but there is still lightness and humanity and beauty out there, and I think that is conveyed so well in this show.”
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