Spunky kids audition for sweet-as-pie role in ‘Waitress’ at National Theatre

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Waitress' at National Theatre (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — “Opening up” is hard to do when you’re a young kid under the bright lights.

Natalie Oleniewski prepares to audition for "Watiress" at Naitonal Theatre. (WTOP/Ginger Whitaker)

But that didn’t stop local children from auditioning for the national tour of “Waitress,” the hit Broadway musical about to make its D.C. premiere at National Theatre from May 15 to June 3.

“We’re really looking for people who are going to be energetic, spunky and help us tell this really, really joyful part of the story,” assistant director Susanna Wolk told WTOP. “Also, being a calm and centered kid who is going to be able to hold their own in front of 2,000 people.”

Auditions were initially slated for Monday, April 2 at National Theatre, but they were rescheduled when Wolk’s flight got snowed in on a New York runway. The patient parents brought their resilient rugrats back on April 9, proving how badly they wanted the part.

“Fortunately, a lot of people who showed [the first] week came back,” Wolk said. “We had an amazing turnout and saw a lot of really, really spunky, awesome kids, so I’m really excited.”

The kids auditioned for the role of Lulu, the sweet daughter of the main character, Jenna, a gritty waitress and expert pie maker who’s stuck in a loveless marriage until a nearby baking contest and a romance with the town’s new doctor offer her a double chance at a fresh start.

“It’s a small but very pivotal role in the show,” Wolk said of Lulu. “Without giving too much away, she shows up for one scene and it’s an extremely joyful, beautiful moment on stage.”

Over 50 girls from the D.C. area auditioned for the role, which is cast anew locally in each city.

“The first part of the audition is just me talking to them and asking questions about what types of things they like to do, what their favorite animals, activities and movies are, what they want to be when they grow up,” Wolk said. “I’m really just trying to get a sense of their personality. Are they mature? Are they energetic? Are they open to engaging with an adult?”

After breaking the ice, Wolk had them perform a physical feat from the actual show.

“I teach them a good portion of what we do with them in the show, [which] involves them seeing their mom and saying, ‘Hi, mama,’ running and giving her a hug,” Wold said. “We do that a bunch of different ways, then I’ll add onto it from there if they seem to be picking it up.”

Two kids were ultimately selected to alternate the role, appearing in four shows apiece each week. One is 4-year-old Alexa Lueck of Alexandria, Virginia, who attends Lee District Preschool in Franconia. She studies tap, jazz, ballet and musical theater at Strictly Rhythm Dance Center in Alexandria, performing in competitions as a member of their competitive dance team.

“Wait, are you saying I get to do my audition on stage every night?!?” Lueck exclaimed, to which her mother Cheryl added, “We are thrilled that Alexa’s acting debut is in this groundbreaking musical and that she will be performing at the historic National Theatre!”

The other is 5-year-old Eva Pieja of Nokesville, Virginia, who attends Chesterbrook Academy in Gainesville and is a three-year ballet student at the Lasley Center for the Performing Arts.

“[I’m] excited and 100 percent happy,” Eva said. “My aunt’s name is Lulu, so she is excited.”

It’s also a beautiful chance for Eva to follow in her mother’s footsteps, as Melissa Pieja recently starred with her daughter in Allegro Community Theater’s production of “The Little Mermaid.”

“I do a lot of theater myself, so the hope is that she gets an interest in it and then we can do it together,” Melissa Pieja told WTOP. “My love for theater began with watching old Shirley Temple movies with my grandmother, which sparked a passion for singing and performing. Eva shares that love. … My hope is that theater brings her as much joy as it has brought me.”

Other parents were inspired to let their kids audition after seeing previous productions.

“‘Waitress is such a good show,” said Christopher Oleniewski from Catonsville, Maryland. “My wife and I saw it at the Hippodrome [in Baltimore] with Desi Oakley as the waitress. When we saw the end and saw Lulu and how perfect she was … we just had to come down.”

Before the audition, Oleniewski practiced lines with his daughter Natalie.

“We were watching a lot of YouTube just to get a better idea of the process and just running lines: ‘Sugar, butter, flour,'” Oleniewski said. “Natalie, what about when you’re sitting on the counter top and you see any number of pies and you’re asked, ‘How many pies do you see?””

“A lot!” Natalie replied enthusiastically.

The music is composed by six-time Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles (“Love Song,” “Brave”), who leads an all-female creative team, including director Diane Paulus (“Finding Neverland,” “Pippin,” “Hair”) and writer Jessie Nelson (“I Am Sam”), who adapts from Arienne Shelley’s film.

“‘She Used to Be Mine’ is just so powerful,” Wolk said. “People really connect with the idea of having lost yourself at some point and needing to find who you are. …  I love Ogie’s song, ‘Never Getting Rid of Me,’ a real crowd-pleaser. … We do this thing ‘Cast Album Karaoke’ in every city where after the show you can come up and do karaoke with the cast.”

Several young auditioners already knew the soundtrack, but most had not yet heard it because the show has only been on Broadway thus far. Instead, most kids warmed up by singing songs from Disney’s “Moana” and “Frozen” and practicing dance moves to Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” and Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”

“Having done this now all over [the U.S.], there will often be kids who start out and they don’t really want to do it, then by the end they’re like, ‘Hi, mama!’ At the end of the audition, we’ll send them out into the hall and they’ll run and see their mom like, ‘Hi, mama!’ Real mom!”

For two local moms in particular, that embrace was sweet as pie.

Find more on the theater website. Hear our full chat with assistant director Susann Wolk below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Susanna Wolk (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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