Cast is superb in musical ‘The Spitfire Grill’
Posted: January 19, 2013
Special to The Winchester Star
winchester — The storyline of “The Spitfire Grill” is deceptively homespun, but this musical by James Valcq and Fred Alley has many layers.
It is the current show in the Glaize Studio Theatre at Shenandoah University.
Theater Department faculty member Wade J. Fransen directs with perception — understanding how the characters, the storyline and the score must intertwine to create intimacy.
The music offers a little bit of bluegrass, a little bit of country, a little bit of folk and some production-type show tunes.
Graduate student Ilana Atkins is at the keyboard and serves as the very able musical director of a versatile five-member ensemble.
Students Justin Miller as scenic coordinator, James Morrison on lighting and Nigel Huckle as costumer all show skill in establishing the rural setting of a dying small town.
While the story itself is a bit of a Lifetime movie, the extremely talented cast rises above some clichéd moments and predictable events with character development and voices that continue to amaze local audiences.
On a deeper level, it should be noted that “The Spitfire Grill” is set in a tiny Wisconsin town called Gilead — an interesting biblical name. Gilead is described in Genesis as the hill of testimony. The themes of the show are finding a place to put down roots, finding community, and finding redemption and forgiveness.
Arriving in the town is newly released prisoner Percy (the excellent Erin Long). A picture she finds in a magazine, showing Gilead’s fall foliage, calls to her as the place for her new start in life.
With local Sheriff Joe (kudos to Nat Huntley) as her probation officer, she is directed to the grill to help the owner — the widowed, unhappy, but feisty Hannah (superbly played by Beth Neault).
Also at the grill (the “only place in town to eat”), Percy meets Shelby (talented Tess Marshall), timid young wife to Hannah’s nephew Caleb. Caleb (Zac Ostrowski), bitter about his life, is an overbearing husband, long jealous of Hannah’s missing son Eli (Frankie Ramirez), who went away to Vietnam.
Into the mix comes comic relief in mail carrier Effy (delightful Becky Filer), known for the delivery of the mail and for all the local gossip.
The small cast in the intimate studio theater with a minimal set is compelling. The audience is so close to the action on stage that one is drawn into the story.
The lively production numbers “Something’s Cooking at the Spitfire Grill” and “Shoot the Moon” are examples of rousing toe-tapping music.
The more somber “Shine” and “Forgotten Lullaby” help the audience to understand the characters.
The mix and juxtaposition of the different kinds of music in this show may be why “The Spitfire Grill” is becoming an often-performed regional theater standard.
The storyline is lightweight. Hannah wants to get rid of the diner and has been talking about doing so for a decade, particularly after she falls down her stairs, injuring her leg badly and finding she needs Percy and Shelby to run the place.
Hannah becomes determined to leave the grill. The three women decide on a raffle to determine who might earn the keys to the grill. Entrants pay $100 and write a letter describing why they should win.
Creating an advertisement for the contest, Percy and Shelby sing “The Colors of Paradise” to describe Gilead, the grill and the fact that the town is a place where one can put down roots. Sheriff Joe, too, sings of the roots in a small town in “This Wide Woods.”
Underneath the comedy of the raffle, Percy learning how to cook, and the nosiness of mail carrier Effy, dark currents of pain and mysterious pasts appear: why was Percy in jail, what happened to Hannah’s son, why is Caleb so bitter and Shelby so unhappy? These are some of the questions that give the characters dimension and help them to transform as the answers to these questions unfold.
The cast gives exceptional performances vocally and in rich, multi-layered character developments — a superb ensemble.
“The Spitfire Grill” will continue at 8 p.m. today and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Glaize Studio Theatre in Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre on the campus of Shenandoah University. Call the box office at 540-665-4569 for tickets and information.