Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Spitfire Grill and School of Jesus Fish
Step into Buffalo Gal Production's musical, The Spitfire Grill, at the Loring Playhouse and you will tuck into a hot dish of strong voices, Midwestern characters and a feel-good cuddle of a story. But this is hot dish; it's good, filling and bland.
Percy, a prickly young woman just released from prison, steps off a bus and into the small town life of Giliad, Wisconsin. Her parole officer, the young sheriff named Joe, arranges for her to stay with Hannah, a crusty old girl who owns the sole diner in town, the run-down Spitfire Grill. Amid prejudice, gossip and a secret that has crippled the town and its people, Percy works at the Grill, proves her worth and, as she heals herself, she helps to return spirit to the town.
It's a nice story of renewal, but the plot stretches a bit thin at times, the big surprise comes as no surprise and the happy ending is cream pie-sweet. The problem lies not in director Perrin Post's strong production, but in Fred Alley and James Valq's adaptation of Lee Zlotoff's 1996 film. The musical starts robustly enough but eventually runs low on dramatic action. But hey, this is a musical in holiday season, and the staging, singing and live music is great.
Beautiful Zoe Pappas brings great pipes and gawky charisma to the role of Percy. This young parolee feels decent but damaged, and Pappas plays her with the fierce prickliness of a woman who does not intend to get knocked about again. Pappas has good voice range; she sings with the vulnerability of a child or belts it out in true country-style.
As Shelby, the unnoticeable woman whose friendship with Percy helps her to grow beyond the control of her dominating husband, Caleb, Deborah Draheim is strong. She's plump and mousy and sings in a lovely soprano.
Bob Hanson struggles to find the troubled heart of Caleb, but tenor Peter Middlecamp sings the underwritten role of the boyish sheriff with feeling. Suzanne Graff brings a good voice and nice comedy to her role as the gossipy postwoman, and Denise Tabet convinces as Hannah, the tough-as-nails but good-at-heart owner of the grill.
We do not see the four musicians on Kevin Knodl's versatile set, but they are very present as they play Valq's rich country score. In a playful touch, the musicians provide some of the sound effects, like the dialing of the postwoman's cell phone. The lyrics are often poetic, and songs like "Ring Around the Moon" and "When Hope Goes" hum on in the mind after the lights go down. The Spitfire Grill runs through November 30 at The Loring Playhouse, 1633 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis. $20-$23. Call: 612-343-3390
For audiences who have not seen the 1975 movie of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Gaia Collective's simple and intimate production of Rick Robinson's School of Jesus Fish might well be poignant and disturbing. But for those of us who have seen Cuckoo's Nest, Robinson's play feels derivative.
Like Kesey, Robinson scripts a Nurse Ratched-type authoritarian figure and a patient who proves therapeutic for fellow patients. When the patient refuses to conform, she's silenced. Kesey's take on a mental hospital felt authentic. Robinson's feels less so in that male therapists are never assigned one-on-one to female sexual abuse victims, and doctors do not hand out pills.
Jesus Fishtakes place in a locked psychiatric unit, where a thoughtful woman with healing powers believes God speaks to her. When she begins to heal her fellow patients, the doctors in charge see her as dangerous and stifle her with massive doses of largactil.
In a bare-bones production, director Malia Long achieves a sense of the claustrophobia of an all-female unit and the deadening daily routine of individual and group therapy run by two male doctors.
Dr. Ben is young and inexperienced. He's given to slipping out of the distanced doctor/patient relationship; his instinct is to develop a relationship with a patient. But that's not what the controlling Dr. Adam considers professional, and Adam monitors Ben's therapy sessions through a one-way window.
Where James Royce's callow Dr. Ben is approachable, Sam Landman's beefy Dr. Adam is all harshness and control. There's nothing redeeming in his character, and when characters in drama fall too strongly into "Types" with a capital "T," a play risks becoming a message play. Robinson's Jesus Fish does not escape this fate. The issues the play confronts and makes with too heavy a hand are the imperative for conformity and the abuse of vulnerable adults in a closed setting by an egotistical authority figure who has absolute power.
The six other characters are more engaging. Anne, the attractive woman who might be schizophrenic or who might indeed be the instrument of her female god's will, is witty and quick. She surprises with her ill-fated choice to be absolute in her commitment to her "voice." Jill James plays Anne with quiet understatement.
In this ensemble play, Gillian Bellinger, Allissa Bellman, Annalise Keueger and Erin Sheppard manage their oddball patient roles well. Kelly Gilpatrick's cynical anorexic, Fish, comes over a touch flat, but Krueger nicely captures the pacing and chest-patting tics of obsessive-compulsive Debra.
Gaia Collective's brave production of Jesus Fish has its own power, but for oldies like me, it comes over as a similar but lesser vehicle than Cuckoo's Nest. School of Jesus Fish runs through November 16. Fridays-Saturdays, 8:00 p.m. The Minnesota Opera Center, 620 North First St., Minneapolis. $12. Call 612-210-6834. On-line, www.gaiacollective.com.