The Spitfire Grill
Music and Book by James Valco, Lyrics and Book by Fred Alley
Based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff
Directed by Maggie Ryan
Insight Theatre Company
August 23, 2014
Insight Theatre Company’s latest musical offering is a charming little musical called The Spitfire Grill, which is somewhat loosely based on the 1996 film of the same name. It’s an inspiring story of second chances, reconciliation and redemption, with engaging characters and an engaging story. It’s a small,somewhat quirky show, and for the most part, Insight has presented it in an entertaining way, emphasizing its memorable characters.
Set in the rural town of Gilead, Wisconsin, The Spitfire Grill follows Percy Talbott (Sam Auch), a young woman from West Virginia who has just been released from prison and who comes to Gilead to start a new life. Her parole officer, Sheriff Joe Sutter (Pete Winfrey) helps her get a job as a waitress at the town’s only restaurant, after which the show is named. Along the way, we meet such characters as the grill’s widowed and disillusioned owner, Hannah, and her embittered nephew Caleb (Troy Turnipseed), who feels unappreciated by his family. There’s also Shelby (Jenni Ryan), Caleb’s neglected wife who finds a new sense of purpose working at the grill; as well as the earnest town sheriff Joe (Pete Winfrey), who finds himself attracted to Percy; Effy (Amy Loui), the town’s postmistress and chief busybody; and a mysterious Visitor (played at this performance by Paul Balfe), whom Percy befriends. The grill has been put up for sale by its widowed and disillusioned owner, Hannah (Janet Wells), who hasn’t been able to find a buyer in ten years, but when Percy suggests a raffle/essay contest with the prize being the grill, a sense of renewed hope begins to build, many long-kept secrets are revealed, and various relationships are challenged.
This is a show that’s about its characters more than anything else, this production has cast them well. Auch gives a strong, sympathetic and vulnerable performance as Percy, displaying a strong, clear voice with a country-style twang on her songs, such as he wistful “A Ring Around the Moon” and the hopeful “Shine”. She also harmonizes well with Ryan on perhaps the show’s best number “The Colors of Paradise”. Auch, Ryan and Wells’ gruff but kindhearted Hannah form the backbone of this show, displaying a convincing bond as their characters’ friendship grows. Winfrey gives an amiable performance as Joe, and Turnipseed manages to infuse the difficult Caleb with some sympathy. There’s also a strong comic performance from Loui as the meddlesome Effy, and Balfe shows a strong, gentle presence in his silent role as the Visitor. Even though the story takes a little while to get moving, the cast manages to find their energy and make these characters and this story interesting and intriguing, with some memorable moments including the Act Two opening number “Come Alive Again”, various character-establishing songs and a stirring finale.
I find the show somewhat strangely structured, in that the first act is mostly sung-through while the second act has more spoken dialogue, and the plot doesn’t really get moving until about the middle of Act One. Also, some songs are more memorable than others. Still the cast performs well and the story gets more and more involving as the show goes along. The technical aspects are handled well, too, for the most part. Aside from the issues with volume (especially in the singing) that have been apparent at every Insight show I’ve seen, the look and atmosphere of the show is portrayed well. Kyra Bishop’s set and Jeff Behm’s lighting, along with Tracy Newcome’s costumes, work together well to set the tone of the piece. There’s also an excellent band led by Catherine Kopff, making the most of show’s score even though they do occasionally overpower the voices of the singers.
I didn’t know much about this show beyond its basic premise before seeing this production at Insight. I think director Maggie Ryan and her cast and crew have done a commendable job in bringing out the most important aspect of this show–the humanity of its characters. It’s not a big, flashy show. It’s a simple story simply told, with an inspiring message of hope and redemption for these quirky and complex characters. It’s a story with warmth, music, a lot of personality, and most of all, heart.