Living in a small town can mean a lot of things. Some are happily comfortable and take pride in their town. Others view it as a prison that they have no idea how to escape. But for some folks an objectively quiet life can be the foundation for starting over and getting life back on track again. Many of the characters in The Spitfire Grill are in the process of starting over, and their onstage journey just began at the New Hazlett, presented by Front Porch Theatricals.
The show begins abruptly without any overture or fanfare. A lone light comes up on Percy Talbott (Lindsay Bayer), a young woman who was just released from prison after serving five years. She begins singing the opening number acapella; it’s a haunting number that hints at a dark past and some sort of hope for the future. As she sings and moves the rest of the cast take the stage in relative darkness, and slowly the set is formed around her. Percy has arrived in the small town of Gilead, Wisconsin where she is quickly hired to work at the best (and only) diner in town, the Spitfire Grill.
Things begin to unfold as the owner of the Grill, Hannah (Terry Wickline), hurts herself and it’s up to Percy to run the show for a while. Hannah’s nephew Caleb (Matthew J. Rush) thinks Percy means nothing good for his town, but his young wife Shelby (Erin Lindsey Krom) is more supportive and aids Percy in running the grill. Many plots start to form and questions arise: is Shelby and Caleb’s marriage a good one? Is there some sort of romance brewing between Percy and Shelby? What happened to Hannah in the past that made her and her nephew the way they are? Who is that homeless man that appears during scene changes who dances like no homeless person ever has?
By the time the second act is winding down it becomes clear that not all these questions are given satisfying answers. The relationship between Percy and Shelby is the strongest one onstage: they duet together, they playfully tease each other, they genuinely “get” each other better than anyone else does. It’s not that I needed them to wind up together, but it’s just disappointing to see their relationship be stronger than the romantic ones they have to settle with in the end. The backstories provide some general answers, but they also tend to raise more questions. They don’t get into it (probably for a reason) but the fact that Percy only got five years for her crimes is really puzzling. There are a few questions, some admittedly too specific, that I would want to ask the playwrights about.
But I have no questions for the cast and crew at Front Porch, who put together an excellent production despite a slightly flat script. Lindsay Bayer has the toughest job as Percy, a young woman who’s seen some seriously dark days in her past. While her portrayal isn’t as cold as it could be, her Percy seems defeated and has no idea what to do. Her final number “Shine” provides an uplifting resolution to her personality, and suggests that maybe Percy has found a way to be happy now.
The music dominates most of the show, with non-singing book scenes lasting shorter than you’d expect. The standard folk/bluegrass score is paired with the more classically-sounding vocals of the cast. There are a few standout numbers, like the opening or “Ice and Snow”, sung by Caleb, the sheriff (Clay Singer), and town busybody Effy (Becki Toth). But as a whole the songs tend to not differentiate much from each other, and almost all of them have to deal with a character reflecting on the past. It gets a little repetitive. And speaking of repetitive, it also felt the writing team struggled towards the end of their songwriting and decided “let’s just have them repeat the same line again and again”. It happens multiple times and it gets old fast, particularly in “The Colors of Paradise”.
The Spitfire Grill is ultimately a story about redemption. Percy and Hannah have each done things they regret, and through knowing each other they take steps towards bettering their life. The musical tells this story, although clutters it up a bit with a few other threads that don’t flesh out. Front Porch Theatricals has, per usual, assembled an excellent cast and creative team and have produced a very well done show.
The Spitfire Grill
Presented by Front Porch Theatricals
Directed by Rachel M. Stevens
Written by James Valcq (music/book) and Fred Alley (lyrics/book)
Designed by Lindsey B. Mayer (scenery), Kim Brown (costumes), Andrew David Ostrowski (lighting), Angela Baughman (sound)
Starring Lindsay Bayer (Percy Talbot), Erin Lindsey Krom (Shelby Thorpe), Michael Petrucci (The Visitor), Matthew J. Rush (Caleb Thorpe), Clay Singer (Joe Sutter), Becki Toth (Effy Krayneck), Terry Wickline (Hannah Ferguson)
Special thanks to Front Porch Theatricals for complimentary press tickets. The Spitfire Grill runs at the New Hazlett through June 5. Tickets and more information can be found here.