Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

The Spitfire Grill
Hawthorne Players
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's review of Heisenberg

Trish Nelke, Melanie Kozak, Kathy Fugate,
Stefanie Kluba, and Colin Dowd

Photo by Ken Clark
100% charming, and perfectly cast, the 2001 musical Spitfire Grill finds its magic in unexpected places. There's the frightening modern chasm of economic dislocation (set in a rural Wisconsin community) and a slow-dawning miracle of escape for all concerned, as you may remember from the 1996 movie with Ellen Burstyn. And, at the Florissant Civic Center Theatre, Hawthorne Players gives it the perfect setting, heartwarming, with a good dash of snark.

Yes, this is an unadulterated rave. But as the story grows, another dimension, or question, arises: how can the pure joy that organically develops onstage here exist side-by-side with all the troubles of the world? For, even as a happy remedy comes along, so does exposure to every kind of earthly heartache, in letters from around the country, from people hoping for a better life. Nevertheless, joy persists—partly because of the beautiful music and wry lyrics of James Valcq and Fred Alley (who also teamed for the libretto), with songs that are rustic and exuberant without being precious. And there is quiet, layered realism in the entire production.

Under the direction of Ken Clark, the thrill of renewed life comes as a gentle promise, despite an earthly veil of tears: To save a small, neglected restaurant, a nationwide raffle is held, and many heartbreaking tales arrive in the mail from would-be owners, along with their entrance fees. The wonderful Kathy Boozer Fugate is Hannah, owner of the diner in Gilead, Wisconsin. She reminds us of a plainspoken, silvery-voiced Barbara Cook circa the 1990s. And Stefanie Kluba is remarkable in her acting and singing as Percy, the hard-edged Detroiter who's just spent five years in a women's correctional facility. (She begins the play behind iron bars before a glorious, hopeful tone emerges from stubborn ground.)

Hannah and Percy are brought together by gawky young Sheriff Joe Sutter (played by the adorable Colin Dowd, a surprisingly adept singer), who ends up spending a lot of time at the diner over the course of the nearly two-and-a-half hour show. So does the local postmaster and town gossip, Effy Krayneck, played by the delightful Trish Nelke (no relation to the long-time Florissant choreographer Dodie Nelke). But some traditions live on, and Ike Eichenberger is once again the musical director, drawing a beautiful sound from all concerned.

Joining Hannah and Percy in staffing the diner is Melanie Kozak, as Shelby (she may remind you, in her callow earnestness, of the novitiate in Sister Act, Mary Robert). Danny Brown plays her husband Caleb (Hannah's nephew) and, though he may not remind you of anyone famous, he is excellent as every guy in the Rust Belt who never was. All of them proceed, reluctantly, out of a world of despair into the unknown, and toward something better.

A remarkably strong production, The Spitfire Grill runs through November 12, 2017, at the Florissant Civic Center at 1 James J. Eagan Drive, Florissant MO. For more information visit

Percy Talbott: Stefanie Kluba
Sheriff Joe Sutter: Colin Dowd
Hannah Ferguson: Kathy Fugate
Caleb Thorpe: Danny Brown
Effy Krayneck: Trish Nelke
Shelby Thorpe: Melanie Kozak
The Visitor: Robert Doyle

Conductor: Ike Eichenberger
Piano/Synthesizer: Karla Curry
Cello: Lina Schulte
Violin: Twinda Murry
Accordion: Joe Paule, Sr.
Guitar/Mandolin: D. Mike Bauer

Artistic Staff:
Director: Ken Clark
Musical Director: Ike Eichenberger
Lighting Design: Eric Wennlund
Assistant Director: Robert Doyle
Set Design: Ken Clark
Rehearsal Pianist: Karla Curry
Props Coordinator: Gayle Wennlund-Snow
Costuming: Jean Heckman
Sound Design: Amanda Jackson
Stage Manager: Danny Austin
Master Carpenter/Technical Director: Dennis Dudenhoeffer
House Management: Douglas Lane
Box Office: Tina Schneider
Publicity: Robert Doyle