Saturday, June 18, 2005

Spitfire Grill (Porthouse/KSU)

‘SPITFIRE GRILL ‘ a well crafted crowd pleaser at Porthouse

In 1997 Lee David Zlotoff’s film version of ‘THE SPITFIRE GRILL’ received the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. When writers James Valcq and Fred Alley transformed the screenplay into a musical for the stage, the off-Broadway production won the Richard Rogers Production Award. As attenders at the opening night of Porthouse Theatre’s 2005 season discovered, the production is everything it is trumpeted to be.

As the play starts, Percy, an ex-convict, is getting off a bus. She has decided to start a new life in Gilead, Wisconsin, a location she selected because of a picture she found in an old travel book. The authors’ choice of the city’s name is not accidental. In the Old Testament a reference is made to a salve noted for healing--the balm of Gilead (Jeremiah 46:11). This allusion supports the play’s themes of healing and hope.

Sheriff Joe Sutter takes Percy to the Spitfire Grill, since it has the only guest room in town. Here, Percy meets Hannah, a seemingly hardened woman, who reluctantly takes her in, but eventually gives her a job.

Effy, the town postmistress and busybody, is immediately suspicious of Percy, as is Caleb, Hannah’s nephew. They make it known that a jailbird isn’t welcome in their midst. It is the shy Shelby, Caleb’s wife, who is the only one willing to suspend judgment. Hannah accidentally falls and injures her leg, Percy gets her medical help, Effy spreads the story that Percy pushed Hannah down a flight of stairs, Hannah puts Percy in charge of the grill, Percy’s cooking proves to be nearly lethal, Shelby helps out, Percy also takes over Hannah’s unexplained ritual of leaving a loaf of bread next to a stump behind the grill. Hannah has been trying to sell the grill for years with no luck. Percy and Shelby, come up with a scheme for an essay contest with an entry fee of $100 and award the restaurant to the writer of the best “Why I Want the Spitfire Grill” essay. And so, the pieces are all set in place for an obvious, but audience pleasing climax.

One of the keymarks of a well-crafted book musical is that each of the songs focuses on the development of the story line. “THE SPITFIRE GRILL’ fulfills that definition as throughout, there is a perfect flow of lyrics and script that carry the story along.

Why did such a wonderful little musical not get its deserved attention? In reality, theatre audiences never really got the opportunity to experience the production because the show opened only three days before the 9/11 tragedy. The calamity closed down much of New York theatre. The show lasted only four weeks, but has increased in popularity as it is done by some of the country’s leading community and regional theatres.

The music of ‘THE SPITFIRE GRILL’ is appropriately rife with the sounds of banjos, guitars, fiddles, and the other instruments closely associated with American folk music.

Terri Kent’s directing is right on target. The pacing is crisp, with just enough stress on pathos and comedy to make the show pleasing without being maudlin or trite.

The cast ranges from outstanding to adequate. As she did in her Times Tributes performance as Lauri in Porthouse’s ‘OKLAHOMA,’ Kayce Cummings lights up the stage with her wonderful singing voice and fine acting skills as Shelby. Her “When Hope Goes’ was not only well sung, but well-interpreted.

Lenne Snively makes Hannah a real person with her textured acting. Her singing versions of “Come Alive’ and “Forgotten Lullaby’ were perfectly interpreted.

Another Times Tribute Award winner, MaryAnn Black, is delightful as Effy, the town gossip. Everything from her prissy walk to her controlled over-the-top characterization works.

As the sheriff, Steel Kurkhardt displayed a nice singing voice, but demonstrated some character-development shallowness. Lisa Marie Schueller seemed miscast in the role of Shelby. She had difficulty with the singing requirements and stayed on the acting surface. There was little visual and oral transition as she traveled from the hardened released criminal to the town savior. Eric van Baars’ singing showed some raggedness which was countered by his fine character development as Caleb.

Melissa Fucci and her orchestra were excellent, Steve Pauna’ set design worked well, and Cynthia Stillings lighting aided in proper mood development.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE SPITFIRE GRILL’ offers some mystery, a little romance, lots of nice music, some views of friendship and familial love mingled with themes of starting over, unconditional love, and life in small-town America. In the hands of Terri Kent and her wonderful cast, Porthouse’s version is a must see production!