The Spitfire Grill
nytheatre.com review by J Jordan
September 4, 2008
Sometimes when you go to the theatre what you really want is just a good story. Sure, you love experimental theatre and performance art and a lot of glitz and razzle dazzle at times, but other times you simply want to make some new friends in the midst of a tale told without too many surprise twists and red herrings. So it is with The Spitfire Grill, presented by Wake Up Marconi! and based on the film of the same name.
The characters who inhabit the Spitfire Grill—the only eatery in a small, depressed, sleepy Wisconsin town—we've all met before. There's the steadfast matriarch who owns and runs the place. She takes no sass but sure knows how to give it. There's the town gossip who also conveniently serves as the mail carrier. There's the slightly hunky—well, ok, hunky—local sheriff whose heart is yearning for something more. There's the typical married couple who started out happily enough but have long since kissed goodbye the good old days of the honeymoon. Then there's Percy Talbott, the interloper, the stranger, the fly in the ointment, the spice in their otherwise normal, tired, quiet lives. Or are they so quiet? Percy, you see, has a secret. And so does everyone else in town.
What unfolds will probably not surprise you, but it's still a good story. Hannah, the owner of the Spitfire Grill, takes in Percy, who's recently been released from prison after Sheriff Sutter asks her to as a favor. Soon enough tongues are wagging. We come to find out Hannah's been trying to sell the Grill for years as it has painful memories attached to it, but there are no takers. After Hannah hurts her hip and Percy takes over in the interim, Percy and co-waitress Shelby, a local housewife, concoct an idea to raffle off the Grill based on a $100 entry fee and an essay as to why someone would want it. Hannah agrees. Soon enough, tongues are wagging again.
In the middle of all this, Shelby and her husband Caleb drift apart. Sheriff Sutter and Shelby drift together. Everyone reveals what they're hiding, except for the gossip, Effie, who has nothing left to hide—she's a gossip. Any loose ends not tied up at the end of the show still hang like bows on a birthday present.
Sometimes, the easiest story is also the hardest to tell. Given The Spitfire Grill is also a musical, you have to consider much of the storytelling is done through song, which the cast and crew of this production do quite well. Although some voices may be more formally trained than others, most of the cast is able to carry the story forward and give us insight into their characters' private lives through the songs, which are well composed by Fred Alley with enjoyable, easy-on-the-ears music by James Valcq. Celine Rosenthal as Percy Talbott stands out with her vocal range (musical talent AND in a real-life paramedic to boot!) but most surprising to this audience member were the vocal stylings and prowess of Valerie G. Keane, who plays town gossip Effie. She has a great voice—can't wait to hear more of it.
In the acting department, Jean Ann Kump as Hannah really brings home the bacon, so to speak. It's clear Kump has enjoyed a varied and colorful career in the theatre and she is easy to watch and trust as Hannah slowly lets us in on her past and her pain. Ben Seidman portrays a workable and likeable Sheriff Sutter and Annie Gane also gives a strong showing as Shelby, the anything but helpless wife Caleb wants her to be. Sean Edwards brings a quiet charm to the role of the Visitor, who further complicates life for Hannah.
I was a little troubled by Caleb's character in that I didn't understand what he really wanted. The writing tells us that Caleb wants the best for the town and its people as well as his wife, but all his actions say otherwise. He spends a lot of time screaming and trying to keep his wife out of the Grill's kitchen, where she seems happiest and most at home. It didn't seem to make much sense to R. Ross Pivec, who plays Caleb, either, but nonetheless he gives it his best effort.
Most of the acting and directing seems a lot more confident during the song portions of the piece than the book. The direction, by Robert Francis Perillo, as well as the lighting, by Karl Chmielewski, are accommodating. The costumes, by M'arion Talan, and set design by David Gonzalez, are done simply, tastefully, and certainly believably. I appreciated the nice touch with the flowers in the Grill at the end of the second act.
It should be noted the music is all live, complete with fiddle, piano, accordion (yes, accordion!), guitar, and cello, which is engaging and fun and a very enjoyable addition to the mix.
All in all, The Spitfire Grill is as much what you want it to be as anything. It doesn't pretend to be showy or glamorous, but, much like the Grill itself, or perhaps a good piece of gossip, the show offers a little something for everyone, most especially a good story.