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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

The Spitfire Grill
at Taproot Theatre Company

Also see David's review of Gray Matter

A musicalization of the critically popular, Oscar nominated 1996 American indie film, The Spitfire Grill got so-so press in its off-Broadway run and, like Bat Boy, closed in the aftermath of 9/11. Still, companies all over the country have picked up the show show, and Taproot Theatre does a fairly respectable job with it. Unfortunately, aside from a few strong numbers, the music by James Valcq and lyrics by Fred Alley range from fair to miserable, while Alley's script (adapted from Lee David Zlotoff's screenplay) is quite good, but every time it gets cookin', there's a song that more often that not feels like it's interrupting the story, rather than accentuating it.

For those unfamiliar with the film, as I was, it's the tale of 21-year-old Percy, who arrives in a small Wisconsin town after her release from prison and is grudgingly given a job by the older Hannah, owner of the diner in the fading Wisconsin timber town of Gilead. Percy is courted by her parole officer Sheriff Joe, befriended by the browbeaten Shelby, scorned by Shelby's chip-on-his-shoulder husband Caleb, and gossiped about by town postmistress Effy. When Percy has to assume more duties at the diner after Hannah is injured, the two women bond and, along with the increasingly defiant Shelby, hatch a scheme to raffle off the diner. There is also a supposedly mysterious visitor who comes around the diner for food; the lack of real surprise as to his identity is the weakest element of the story, yet the storytelling and dialogue remains compelling - until an awkward song takes over.

Spitfire Grill
Francile Albright as Percy,
Pam Nolte as Hannah
and Carin Towne as Shelby

Despite a certain heavily preachy tone to Scott Nolte's direction, he has elicited strong and resonant performances from his female leads. Francile Albright as Percy is a new face in town to be reckoned with. Her vocals are thrilling and her character arch is well defined and never predictable. Taproot mainstay Pam Nolte is always believable, if nearly unrecognizable, as crotchety old Hannah and delivers her musical numbers with power and passion. Carin Towne ably embodies Shelby's transformation from subservient housewife to feisty and independent working woman. And in the most caricatured yet endearing role in the show, Sabrina Prielaida is a comic whirlwind of a town snoop who embodies a whole town full of gossips (like Music Man's "Pick-a-little/Talk a little" all rolled into one), and her gutsy voice is another strong asset to the ensemble numbers.

As the sulky Caleb, Aaron Jacobs fails to make us find anything to care about in his characterization, and Jonathan Martin is blandly earnest and stiff as Sheriff Joe, making Percy's eventual attraction to him hard to fathom. Scoring points as the hermit-like visitor, Evan Whitfield manages to convey sorrow and sympathy in his totally mute role.

Several of the show's comic numbers are jaunty and amusing, especially the full-cast "Something's Cooking," Percy's "Out of the Fire," and the rousing act two ensemble number "Come Alive Again." Too many of the ballads sound the same musically and rip with hallmark card sentiments, but the ladies, all blessed with being strong actress/singers, transcend the score's shortcomings. The men's songs are alas the worst of the lot, and neither Jacobs nor Martin are distinctive or solid enough vocalists to overcome the weakness of their material.

Musical director Edd Key and his three back-up musicians are tucked away behind the scrim, but they bring zest and vitality to even the weakest moments in the score and maintain an excellent balance with the singers. Scenic and sound design by Mark Lund are successful given the space limitations of Taproot's stage, with an appropriately moody lighting design by Richard Schaefer and suitably bucolic costumes designed by Debra Skorstad.

Taproot is to be applauded for programming a new musical theatre work, whatever its deficiencies, and two amiable hours with those actresses is time well spent. Like me, though, you may well like the story well enough to go check out the original film version. I bet it's a charmer!

The Spitfire Grill runs through Aug. 9, at Taproot, 204 N. 85th St. in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood. with post-play discussions on Wednesday nights. Tickets are $18-$26, except $10 for those under 25, 206-781-9707 or Ticketmaster. For more information visit the Taproot web-site at www.taproottheatre.org.


Photo: Matthew Lawrence




- David-Edward Hughes



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