Monday, November 20, 2006

Spitfire Grill (Clague Playhouse)

Clague’s ‘THE SPITFIRE GRILL’ is well-done

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. That script is now on stage at Clague Playhouse.

As the play starts, Percy is singing of “A Ring Around the Moon” from her jail cell, yearning for a view without bars on the window. When she is released she decides to start a new life in Gilead, Wisconsin, a location she selected because of a nature 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.

The town sheriff, Joe Sutter, takes Percy to the Spitfire Grill. Here, Percy meets Hannah, a seemingly hardened woman, who reluctantly takes her in and 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 with the winner awarded the restaurant. 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? 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.

Clague’s production, which is peopled by amateur actors, is excellent. Director Don Irven has paced the show well, staged it with intelligence, makes sure that the lyrics are sung for meaning, and most of the characters are clearly drawn.

Heather Balogh makes Percy live. She has a nice country twanged voice. Sarah Portz, as the put-upon Shelby, is character-perfect. She has the finest singing voice in the cast. George Kukich, who has an acceptable singing voice, develops a believably shy Joe. Mary Jane Nottage is delightful as Hannah and does a nice job of presenting her songs in spite of a limited singing range. Mitch Manthey is inconsistent as Hannah’s nephew Calab. His character comes and goes and often doesn’t build into his argumentative self, just explodes. Only Paige Reich, as Effy, the town gossip, fails to be close to believable. She is much too emotionally controlled, not meddling and chattering enough.

Ron Newell’s fragmented set, Lance Switzer’s lighting and Casey Jones’ sound effects enhance the production.

Musical Director John Franks’ orchestra, which consists of an accordion, violin, guitar, mandolin, cello and keyboard, is excellent.

Capsule Judgement: Clague’s ‘THE SPITFIRE GRILL,’ which is a delightful and imaginative journey of self-discovery, is a very good amateur production. It is well worth a trip to Westlake!