“It only takes a taste, when it’s something special,” Bibo Reyes sings at rehearsals for the international premiere of Waitress, which will be staged here in Manila at the RCBC Plaza.

The song, a duet with Joanna Ampil, who plays the titular waitress Jenna, marks the beginning of their characters’ relationship. The cast and crew of Waitress in Manila, mounted by Atlantis Theatrical, with Bobby Garcia directing, are making the final preparations for opening night on 9 November. At the rehearsals, we got to chat with Joanna, who filled us in on what we can expect come showtime.

Waitress is Joanna’s first local theatre production since she returned to the Philippines, following her award-winning role as Candida in the film adaptation of “Ang Larawan.” On the challenge of playing a character like Jenna, Ampil says the role is one of the more physical and emotionally demanding ones she’s had, especially since she is in virtually every scene.

“The challenge is just keeping in shape, making sure I’m in tiptop form all the time, and making sure that vocally I’m on top form also. And getting into the zone of Jenna, when she is meant to be down or when I have to psych myself down, making sure that everything is on point.”

Playing Jenna’s friends are Aliw Award winner Bituin Escalante as the sassy but sweet Becky, and musical theater mainstay Maronne Cruz as the eccentric Dawn. Singer-songwriter Nino Alejandro plays Dawn’s persistent suitor Ogie, George Schulze plays Jenna’s abusive husband Earl, Dean Rosen plays her boss Cal, and Steven Conde plays the ill-tempered diner owner Joe. Rounding out the cast is Bibo Reyes as Jenna’s gynecologist-slash-love interest Dr. Pomatter.

Jenna’s relationship with her husband Earl, a violent and controlling man, is especially relevant in the #MeToo era. Critics of the Broadway musical have also commended the story for being female-centric and highlighting female empowerment.

“The story is something that happens now, not just in America but all over the world. And people need to be aware of this.”

But even though Jenna’s relationship is a prime example of the darkness of domestic abuse, Ampil emphasises that the musical makes Jenna’s story one of hope and positivity.

“It’s about Jenna trying to get her strength back. We show her journey but the journey on how to find her way back to positivity, to get out of an abusive relationship, not through other people but from her own strength… it’s from within Jenna. It’s all that and it’s very tangible when you watch the show.”

Apart from being the first one outside of the USA, Waitress in Manila is a “completely different production,” says Joanna, who mentions that the set, designed by Tony-Award winner David Gallo, is much different from the one on Broadway.

“Just be prepared to be transported to a different world, which is so magical. Be prepared to be transported to this diner which is full of positivity and good vibes.”

Waitress is set mostly in a diner in the American South, but the story is one that is universal, and something that Filipino audiences can and will relate to. “I think wherever you put this show, people will be able to relate to it. The characters are so real that people can easily find it accessible. They will be able to relate to one or two characters in the show. Sara Bareilles’ music and her lyrics are so universal. Music in itself is so universal anyway.”