Review: “The Spitfire Grill”

Karl Hamilton as Caleb and Catherine Smitko as Hannah in “Spitfire Grill.” (Photo by Michael Brosilow)


Where: American Blues
Theater at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through Aug. 17
Tickets: $19-$39
Phone: 773-654-3103

Theater Critic

The Spitfire Grill,” James Valcq (music and book) and Fred Alley’s (lyrics and book) 2001 musical based on Lee David Zlotoff’s 1996 movie, is a sentimental show offering few, if any, surprises, but somehow its message of forgiveness, redemption, and transformation through the power of friendship is very satisfying, especially in these divisive times.

American Blues Theater’s strong production benefits from Tammy Mader’s astute direction, Malcolm Ruhl’s carefully calibrated musical direction, and a cast of seven who can both act convincingly and sing the hell out of the beautiful folk-and-pop-peppered score that pays tribute to the changing seasons and nature in soaring ballads like “A Ring Around the Moon” and “The Colors of Paradise,” yet has room for bluesy numbers such as “Out of the Frying Pan” and “Ice and Snow,”

Three strong women are at the center of the tale, which begins when Percy Talbott (Jacquelyne Jones, who won a Jeff Award as Mrs. Lovett in Theo Ubique’s “Sweeney Todd) is released after five years in prison and heads to Gilead in rural Wisconsin because she saw a picture of the fictional town decked out in autumn colors and thinks it will be a paradise for a new beginning.

Percy is in for a rude shock when she gets there—in winter—and discovers that Gilead has become practically a ghost town since the local quarry shut down. But Sheriff Joe Sutter (Donterrio Johnson), her parole officer, gets her a job and lodging at the only restaurant left, the Spitfire Grill, run by Hannah Ferguson (Catherine Smitko), a curmudgeonly old woman with a bad hip and a dark secret.

Prickly Percy and hostile Hannah don’t exactly hit it off until Percy rescues Hannah from a bad fall and takes over diner cooking duties while her boss recovers, She can’t cook but happily receives much needed help from sweet, somewhat timid Shelby Thorpe (Dara Cameron), bullied wife of Hannah’s nephew Caleb (Karl Hamilton), the former quarry supervisor and now a real-estate agent who takes out his disappointments on his spouse. Crucial among them is the fact that he could never live up to his cousin, the town golden boy who enlisted to fight in the Vietnam War and then disappeared. The loss of this son and then her husband also made Hannah bitter, but she slowly softens as she discovers a new family in Percy, who’s renewed by being accepted and useful, and Shelby, who learns to stand up to her husband.

The activity that brings the three women closer together is Percy and Shelby’s plan to find a new owner for the diner, something Hannah has been trying to do for a decade. They propose a contest, with each participant submitting $100 and a letter explaining why the Spitfire should go to him/her. Thousands of letters pour in, some very funny, others overflowing with sad accounts from rural folks in situations similar to the characters’ own.

Many of the letters are delivered by the town postmistress and busybody, Effy Krayneck (Gabrielle Lott-Rogers), who starts out spreading nasty rumors about Percy but ends up getting involved in the process of reading the letters and picking a winner. Rounding out the ensemble is The Visitor (Ian Paul Custer), a mysterious stranger for whom Hannah has a loaf of bread left out every night.

Not surprisingly, there are lots of twists and turns as Percy’s horrific back story comes out, Joe falls in love with her and even proposes, and she forms a tentative bond with The Visitor. His identity is revealed, of course, but if you haven’t figured it out beforehand, you’re not paying attention. The outcome for the Spitfire also is obvious, but this is sort of a folk tale, so there’s no reason not to expect a happy ending.

The payoff for going with the flow is one fine song after another – “When Hope Goes,”  “Forgotten Lullaby,” “Shoot the Moon,” “Come Alive Again,” “Wild Bird,” “Way Back Home” – though a few of them go on too long, and too many finish with a really big crescendo. I also wish the actors weren’t wearing body mics; some, such as Jones, don’t need them. And Ruhl (on accordion) and the four other musicians were very good, so it would have been nice to be able to see them.

My other wish is that the staging was more inventive. The house-like outline of Sarah E. Ross’s set wasn’t evident from where I was sitting in the first row, and the stage seemed cluttered with look-of-wood cutouts including trees that were ugly—and didn’t change with the seasons, not even with Jared Gooding’s lighting. Leaving more to our imaginations might have been the better route.

Still, “The Spitfire Grill” at American Blues should send you out into the night with a warm feeling and a little more faith in the ability of people to change for the better.