"The Spitfire Grill"is the story of a young woman and the town she changes while working at a small grill, after her release from prison. It's also the story of how that town changes her. Basing their show on the 1996 film by Lee David Zlotoff, the musical's authors James Valcq and Fred Alley have re-shaped the story into an intimate, character-driven musical. Vivid and sympathetic individuals create a genuine community, and the well-crafted and dramatically focused songs move the story to a gratifying, if somewhat compromised, conclusion. A solid cast, confidently directed by Scott Nolte, invests the show with conviction and authenticity.
That authenticity begins with the character of Percy, beautifully played by Francile Albright. Her personal odyssey is from prison to the natural world, from corrosive guilt to self-forgiveness, and from isolation to community. As played by Ms. Albright, she is tough and defensive to being with, then engaged and apprehensive, and finally joyous and unaffected. She has a rather thin, but well-understood voice, and in songs like "A Ring Around the Moon" and "Shine" it soars and achieves real strength. Her romance with the town Sheriff, Joe (handsomely played by Jonathan Martin) is vulnerable and sweet without being sentimental. Martin brought appeal and charm to the plain dreams of their romance. His duet with Percy, "The Wide Woods" was the most successful suggestion of the power of nature to heal and restore. Percy has real strength of character, and it's shown in her relationship with everyone in town.
Percy's key relationship is with Hannah, the owner of the grill, strikingly played by Pam Nolte. Hannah is a strong, idiosyncratic woman whose practicality masks the cost of years of incrimination and regret. Her "Forgotten Lullaby" is sung with a voice that is worn and un-pretty, but exquisitely true. The relationship with her lost son, Eli, has depth and power. Her story parallels Percy's, and she makes a striking argument against secrets held too long, and guilt unnecessarily sustained. That they both achieve freedom from their self-imposed imprisonment is the story's resolution.
Carin Towne plays Shelby, a mild and kind-spirited woman, empowered by Percy to overcome the repression of her insecure and insensitive husband. She is at the other end of the spectrum of confidence from Hannah. When she and Percy present the idea of raffling off the un-sellable grill in an essay contest, it vitalizes the entire town, and brings Shelby to life. Ms. Towne also has the most purely lyric singing voice, used to great effect in "When Hope Goes". Her husband, underwritten but competently played by Aaron Jacobs, has weak material, and an somewhat undistinguished style. The town gossip, Effy (Sabrina Prielaida) is overplayed and resorts to visual cliché and stereotyped excess.
Director Scott Nolte carefully tends to the story, while allowing the strength and energy of the music to generate its own kind of narrative. He clearly loves the material, and it shows in the warmth of the ensemble and the investment of the performance. The acting is fine, and generally better than the singing voices. To their credit (and music director Ed Keys) the songs almost always feel like the natural result of character and situation, and not superfluous or contrived.
As effective as most of the solos were, the ensemble numbers were often better, and that was critically important in a show so much about the group. Whether the light comedy of the busy number, "Something's Cooking", which establishes the society of the grill, or the enthusiastic, "Shoot the Moon", or the excellent finale, the cast used their individual characters to blend into something greater, and that unity became the play's raisson d'etre
. Making a stage musical from a film inevitably changes not only the manner of the telling, but also the material itself. Things are lost and other things are gained. In this case, we gain the strength of wonderful songs, and lose the transcendence of the natural world. On stage, the visual eloquence of the landscape becomes a tertiary experience, known only through the character's response to it. Even such lovely numbers as "The Colors of Paradise" and the gorgeous duet "This Wide Woods" can only suggest a vista we obviously cannot see on stage. In place of that visual reality, however, the ecology of community becomes even stronger, and the interior of the Spitfire Grill becomes the locale for each character's internal world.
For the most part, I thought the first act was terrific. It was in the second act where it felt like too much had been trimmed from the back-story, and the resolution was perfunctory and a little too feel-good. I found myself filling in information from the film. The positive emotions in this story are honestly earned, and the problems these characters confront are genuine. For me, the happy ending diminished the entire contest sub-plot, and denied a presumption that at the end of this play everything will have changed for everyone in it. To be sure, my quibbles are with the book, not the score, the lyrics, or the quality of this performance. "Spitfire Grill" is a warm and engaging show that deserves wide performance. Taproot Theatre has filled the stage with people we can care about, and given them reason to sing together, out loud, within a small grill, and in the big, beautiful, natural world.
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