Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Some musicals are sweeping tales of profound substance. Others are rip-roaring old-fashioned comedies with dancing showgirls. The Spitfire Grill is neither of these. Rather, it is a pleasant, moving, and intimate tuner with sufficient levels of drama, humor, and heart. The production currently playing at The Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton is the show's regional premiere and features strong singers, impressive design elements, and strong direction.
The Spitfire Grill, based on the film of the same name, tells the story of Percy, a young woman recently paroled from prison. This spunky, yet hardened city dweller decides to make a fresh start by settling in the small town of Gilead, Wisconsin. Though initially met with skepticism and treated as an outsider, Percy finally begins to win over the hearts and trust of the townspeople. Percy not only moves toward recovery from her tormented past, but also serves as an instrument of healing for her newfound friends and neighbors.
The story for The Spitfire Grill is one of redemption and acceptance. Even if the book by James Valcq and the late Fred Alley has a few too many melodramatic moments and some slow spots, it also contains fully developed and sympathetic characters and an uplifting message worthy of telling. Some audience members may find the new, feel-good ending to be a cop out as compared to the movie, but it somehow seems right for this musical version.
Valcq and Alley also wrote the score, which features many solid country-flavored theater songs. The show's tender lullabies ("Wild Bird," "Forgotten Lullaby"), comedic charm songs ("Out of the Frying Pan"), and soul-searching emotional ballads ("Shine," "When Hope Goes") are a good fit for this heartwarming story. There are exquisite vocal arrangements throughout, with "Come Alive Again" and "The Colors of Paradise" especially musically thrilling. The only criticism is that too many songs sound similar, but much of this can be blamed on appropriate, yet unvaried orchestrations.
As Percy, Laura Schutter is completely believable as the hardened young lady looking for a new start, while also winning the audience's sympathy as her history unfolds. Ms. Schutter also beautifully handles the role's challenging vocals with aplomb. Kay Bosse displays healthy singing chops as Hannah, the elderly matron of the grill. The character arc from injured soul to tender motherly figure by Ms. Bosse is convincingly accomplished. As Shelby, Katie Pees adequately communicates the low self-esteem caused by a controlling husband, and sings two of the show's most touching numbers with fitting tenderness. Mitchell Jarvis scores very well with his powerful singing in "This Wide Woods" and "Forest For The Trees," but seems a bit wooden in his portrayal of Sheriff Joe. Guy Lemonnier demonstrates his strong singing ability in the underwritten role of Caleb. Renee Franck-Reed capably contributes needed comic relief throughout the production, and D. Tristan Cupp is necessarily mysterious as "the visitor."
With the exception of some confusing images using masked actors in the initial scene, Director Scott Stoney provides this production with all of the attributes it needs to entertain and present its message, including suitable tone, pace, flow, and staging. Music Director Gerald Rheault leads a fine five-member band.
Scenic Designer Dan Gray incorporates a turntable set to allow for efficient use of the space. The mostly wooden set is handsome, and every aspect of the design is a proper fit for the setting. Costumes by Mary Beth McLaughlin likewise suit the small town location and are professionally rendered. The excellently configured and well-implemented lighting is by John Rensel, and Dave Wallingford's sound is clear.
The Spitfire Grill has no excitement-inducing events that take place within its story, but rather focuses on the relationships of realistic people. The Human Race Theatre Company's production boasts a talented cast, praiseworthy achievements in design, and direction that conveys the poignant and personal journeys of these characters. The Spitfire Grill continues at the Loft Theater through November 9, 2003. For tickets, please call (937) 228-3630.-- Scott Cain