The acting is stellar in The Spitfire Grill
Book and lyrics by Fred Alley. Book and music by James Valcq. Directed by Kerry van der Griend. A Midnight Theatre Collective production. At Pacific Theatre on Wednesday, September 26. Continues until October 27
This musical is so deliberately, generically, predictably feel-good that it left me feeling next to nothing. But some of the performances in this production are stellar.
To create The Spitfire Grill, the stage musical, Fred Alley and James Valcq adapted the dramatic film that won the Sundance Festival Audience Award in 1996. In the musical, a young woman named Percy settles in the hamlet of Gilead, Wisconsin, after spending five years in the slammer. What was she in for? Well, when Hannah, who owns the grill where Percy lands a job, touches Percy’s arm, she rounds on her like a cornered dog and spits, “Don’t grab at me!” You figure it out.
Everything in Gilead, including the characters, is so formulaic that the place starts to feel like a rustic Stepford. Hannah is crusty but—wouldn’t you know it?—lovable. Effy, the postmistress, is, unsurprisingly, a gossip.
The nostalgia in this piece—a longing for the simple, simply caring rural communities that have never existed—feels manipulative. And the resolution of the romantic subplot is as predetermined as an arranged marriage.
In the central story, Percy and her friend Shelby, who’s really nice but unfortunately attached to a stereotypically oppressive husband, convince Hannah, who wants to sell the grill, to raffle it off instead. Spend 10 minutes in the theatre and you will know exactly how this all turns out. Oh, and by the way, Percy redeems the entire town through her sheer, plucky presence.
The song lyrics? Judge for yourself: “I’m just a fool who couldn’t see the forest for the trees. That is, until the day you came along.”
Amazingly, the artists of the Midnight Theatre Collective almost make this sow’s ear look like a Gucci bag. Julie McIsaac (Edgar in King Lear, Ophelia in Hamlet) plays Percy, and not only can she really sing—who knew?—but she also plays the violin. With her patentable brand of innocence and the simplicity of her style, McIsaac finds genuine vulnerability within the script’s clichés. Caitriona Murphy brings her playful timing and enormous ability to shape a song to the role of Shelby. Barbara Pollard’s Hannah is honestly salt-of-the-earth, and Sarah May Redmond (Effy) and Steven Greenfield (Joe, the town sheriff) both display remarkable musical chops. Damon Calderwood (Caleb, Shelby’s chauvinist husband) also has a strong voice, but he oversells his songs and overacts. Greenfield’s multilevelled musical direction is a delight.
Designer Francesca Albertazzi manages to squeeze a two-storey set onto Pacific Theatre’s tiny stage. Sightlines might be a bit iffy on the sides, but they were good from where I sat, and Albertazzi creates an elegantly stylin’ retro look.
These artists have poured a lot of love into this musical, but the musical leaks.